Journal: Percutio

Cover: S. Bianciardi

An annual published in hard copy in New Zealand and France paying special attention to the creative process and issues relating to translation.


Percutio is dedicated primarily to reflections upon the creative process, particularly in relation to work that bridges cultures.

Cover: N. Bunn

Percutio may, therefore, feature poetry, essays, extracts from novels, choreography, approaches to composition and journal entries in English and the language of creation.

Cover:A. Loeffler

The deadline each year is April 10th.

Submissions are welcome.

View the pilot issue (without images) free of charge here.
View the contents lists and editorials of past issues here.

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The Poet as Fraud: A Composite by Stephen Oliver. (added 6.8.05)


The Poet As Fraud: A Composite, by Stephen Oliver

PART TWO (Part One)

The American critic and poet, Dana Gioias commonsensical essay, Can Poetry Matter, first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, in May 1991. In it, he contends that poetry has become a sub-culture that has lost its link with a wider, reading public and is now relegated to academic institutions and the endemic factories of poetry-as-product known as creative writing courses. His essay immediately precipitated reaction and counter-reaction from teacher-poets and literary critics alike. His remarks on poetry anthologists I find unerringly relevant and satisfyingly instructive:


A clubby feeling also typifies most recent anthologies of contemporary poetry ... More than one editor has discovered that the best way to get an anthology assigned is to include work by poets who teach these [creative writing] courses ... many of these anthologies give the impression that literary quality is a concept that neither an editor nor a reader should take too seriously.

The editorial principle governing selection seems to have been the fear of leaving out some influential colleague.

The poetry subculture no longer assumes that all published poems will be read. Like their colleagues in other academic departments, poetry professionals must publish, for purposes of both job security and career advancement. The more they publish, the faster they progress. If they do not publish, or wait too long, their economic futures are in grave jeopardy.

The slow maturation of genuine creativity looks like laziness to a committee.

Like subsidized farming that grows food no one wants, a poetry industry has been created to serve the interests of the producers and not the consumers. And in the process the integrity of the art has been betrayed. Of course, no poet is allowed to admit this in public.


However, such beneficence is yet to be bestowed upon our man. So, to return to the profile. At intermittent periods throughout his career, and according to the fashion of the moment, he will produce the occasional cyclostyled or Gestetner literary magazine (collated and stapled at his rustic dinner table) with a careful blend of women and post-beat writers, though mostly emerging, and young women writers - a tokenism offered up by the boys club to offset criticism of nepotism - the gamble being that one or two will become famous down the track, thereby ensuring literary and historical relevance in the great scheme of things, with short, informal poems reminiscent of a telephone-speak, and hip self-help snippets from real estate and travel advertisements, smirky off-the-wall and zany personal contact notices like Fun loving Sagittarian seeks leather-clad chanteuse for meaningless relationship, revamped Robert Crumb and Archie type cartoons, mixed in with found and concrete poems, list poems, urban cowboy and anti-intellectual poems, dope and dada poems, poems about oral sex and poems about the oral tradition in a bleary-eyed production of retro 60s nostalgia and bric a brac couched in a North American patois with a flavour of throw-away disposability about it; a Poets Digest of small-town flapdoodle.


It should be noted here that although Dana Gioia states in his new Introduction To The Tenth Anneversay Edition of Can Poetry Matter? (August, 2002, Grayworlf Press) that a good deal has changed for the better in the promotion of [American] poetry, and that it now reaches a braoder democratic base than ever before through radio programmes, festivals, newspaper columns, the internet, etc (the same largess, however, does not apply to the Australian poetry scene where the opposite appears to be happening) beyond the academic institutions, he notes, too, that the state of poetry criticism and reviewing remains deplorable.


Understandable really, when you consider that the conservative mind will invariably react with fear - even hatred, when challenged; this applies to a particular underclass of book reviewer happy enough to pass off ill considered opinion and ignorance as informed, critical judgement. The democratic process may be the guardian of free speech, but it simultaneously lets into the backyard the rabid dogs of bias, bigotry and personal agenda. And the biggest backyard operating at present is the internet.


These magazines might run to maybe five or six issues over a two year period and then fold. A banner title would sound an attitude in the manner of STOKED [or] GET OVER IT, BUKOWSKIS BABY - even, dare I say it, published under the imprimatur, WAY COOL UNLIMITED. This proves to be an effective DIY exercise using outdated technologies which illicit a peer-group nose-sniffing and an indulgent, passing interest amongst the younger literati. However, as a ploy in drumming up pre-publicity for his next book of poems, advertising and selling through public readings and putting in for literature grants, this works well enough.


This is no answer to the greater number of institutionalized national literary and current affairs magazines - or any number of assorted dailies with their potted poetry reviews (such publications little more than outlets for 'establishment' book publishers, those stooges of the multi-nationals) tired old matriarchs of the mainstream, limping dowagers of conventional taste still aping the mannerisms of post-second world war literary mores like the New Statesman or the Spectator.


Yet they grind on, sagging under the weight of precious advertising copy, outdated cryptic crossword puzzles, and celebrity interviews, stricken by interchangeable book review editors who align themselves in the most partisan fashion to popular taste, whose editorial judgements often as not are informed by 'suspect' third party recommendations, and the dirty politics of the literary rumour-mill. Journalist hacks who wouldnt know a bard from a Buick, an ode from an omelette. Journeymen, without a creative bone in their bodies, whose cultural refinement exists in an uncanny ability to kowtow before the established presses of the day, and to take advantage of every A-list dinner party thrown their way by the self-proclaimed, official arbiters of public and literary taste. An editor in this position is the equivalent of a 'rent boy' within the literary industry. It is provincialism taken to its snobbish extreme - easily associated with self-styled, quasi-European centres like Melbourne, for instance.


Australia, geographically the larger of the two countries, will dismiss the artist out of a causal indifference, New Zealand, the smaller, out of unambiguous malice; the first is attributable to an expansive yet cultural looseness, the second to a narrow and self-conscious insularity. I had observed in an early poem, Welcome, To The Pace Train [in] Guardians, Not Angels, 1993, that New Zealand reminded me of a country shaped like a broken hand gun - on reflection, it is a little more ragged round the edges, closer in shape to that of a half-gnawed chicken bone. For me, coming to Australia in the mid 80s, it was more a case of leaping out of the fire into the frying pan.


Our composite poet (and he is, necessarily, a chameleon) might have diverged slightly in career paths though he is governed by much the same motivation; and it must be remembered that poets share much the same mildly psychotic condition, dont trust your fellow poet and better him or her at every given opportunity - petty jealousies are exacerbated in part because there is very little money in the way of grants, or not enough monies to go around, and even fewer publishing opportunities open to poets; they are like dogs tearing themselves apart over the same old mouldy bone. Unless he is an academic - something of an El Dorado to the poet. Travel, money, power, authority are at his fingertips. Alternate options for the non-academic poet are school-teacherly positions, petty bureaucrat in a government department [drainage or engineering] an assistant editor in a small publishing house - journalism (for the mid-career poet) copywriting (for the younger poet). And of course the ubiquitous creative writing institutions - adjuncts of the university English department.


If he has had dealings with the visual arts as critic he may chance an appointment at a Museum of Contemporary Art and happily cease to write altogether. Composite poet number one. This means that, after an absence of a decade or so, he can then burst back upon the scene with a new book (and remember, our man is a consummate chameleon) and depart the Art Museum like the Pharisee rending his garments on the steps of the temple, imploring his God (and the book buying public) to forgive him his adulation of false idols and the promulgation of sophistries which fooled an entire, now aging generation. He proceeds then to claim allegiance with the classical traditions - but who? Juvenal and his Satires, Catullus, the Odes of Horace, (no, done to death by all and sundry), Virgils Georgics or Theocrities Idylls - hardly, he lives in a country altogether smothered in sheep (as are both Australia and New Zealand) and this would leave him feeling bloated and quite claustrophobic. Something with a rational edge is called for to temper those unaddressed issues of family, and hitherto disregarded filial sensitivities in previous works. He settles on a combination of four Roman poets of the Augustan Period:- Propertius and his choleric intensity, Ovid and his sanguine coupling, Virgil and his phlegmatic musings, and Horace, with his melancholic equipoise. For here we have, as Joseph Brodsky so neatly put it, the standard representations of the four known humours.


Unfortunately his collection, titled Cantos for Connoisseurs proves to be at once flat and prosaic, sickly sweet, and in his attempt at gravitas and sincerity, mere block sentiment. His knowledge of traditional forms essentially only goes back to Ezra Pound! Not for him (and I paraphrase the Robert Graves edict) the wastepaper bin is the writers best friend. Yet like many poets of his generation, he had simply picked up on attitude, a synonym for what is dernier cri - and not the discipline which informed it; his work, therefore, exhibits a cardboard, two dimensional perspective. A brand-new dishonesty.


Nevertheless, the book is trumpeted a success amongst the dinner-party set (he includes a few mock ancient recipes vis a vis poems, only too well aware that cookery books are best sellers) of Remuera and Parnell in Auckland, Khandallah and Oriental Bay in Wellington; in Sydney, a hit in the Eastern suburbs and especially Vaucluse; in Melbourne, a gracious acceptance in Toorak and South Yarra. O happy days! Welcome the return of the profligate son from the corporate wilderness. Let us lift our glasses of curaçao and sigh in collective, groovy relief. The fashion for sincerity and reinventing ones self takes off like wild fire amongst the high rollers and the CBD art brokers and investors.


He is also mildly sympathetic to his other, the less frantically received composite poet number two, the one who as a confirmed outsider lives by choice in a downbeat suburb, who might run a second hand bookshop in an old hippy neighbourhood - maybe selling a little dope on the side to make ends meet, or working as a garbo, doing a postie run in an Alsatian infested housing estate - or if seriously into employment (married, for instance, with a few dependants) driving a cab at night with a monkey wrench under the seat. It is toward composite poet number two that our man turns to first when he launches his book, and with whom he will do a select number of readings to endorse his anomic street cred and new found humility.


Is he not, after all, still that same self-styled, establishment destroying Aeneas his publicity machine made him out to be in the early days of his career? Whatever the answer, funding belongs to those at the top end of the pecking order, and as a result, there is never enough to go around at any one time in this yearly lottery. And as to International Literary and Arts festivals, these are the Elysium fields of the Booker Prize Award Winners and the Queens Medal for Poetry recipients - and for those few academic poets and others who are duly appointed, or those who are kept as token representatives of the craft (as a tax write off) by the main stream university publishing houses - who can wangle their way through nomination committees to make up the numbers. Poetry governed by Machiavellianism principles of duplicity and the muse in such quarters is dead and buried.


Dionysus, progenitor of the lyric poet, has been handed not a goblet of wine, but a score-card! A true respect for the office of poet appears to have been long abandoned by the versifier. And having come phenomenally thus far in the light of all our advances, I wonder whether there is yet a new way to be surprised at life - its mysteries, if we can still call them that, beyond the prevailing fashions and the dulling of the senses? You will not today, for instance, find a Socrates sipping hemlock in defence of an ideal, or a Diogenes hanging out in a storm-water drain. The Thomas Chatterton myth is a sorry footnote to and parody of the Romantic tradition - at least, in terms of grand passion pitched to the level of vision and the epiphany of belief - to be found contesting failure in the confrontation with self. It is difficult enough to be single minded in a multiple-choice world. That sort of naivety could never be tolerated these days. It is no longer a case of the belief behind the act; conversely, it is more a case nowadays of the act behind the guile. You are more likely to find pop lyricists living in penthouse apartments opening doors by remote control and driving keyboards to sophisticated software packages. Victims to the terminal cliches of hype.


Poetry has been hijacked by the careerists and ego-terrorists who believe that immortality is equated with fame and the manipulation of other peoples emotions and insecurities for real or imagined gain. These days, the so called movers and shakers of an earlier poetic generation are now middle-aged anthologists and committee members who have closed ranks, scrofulously occupied in a rear guard action of shoring up defences against exposure en déshabillé as frauds, which every passing day threatens, and are to be found acting as pimps, under the influence of OHaras shade (or any other recently contemporary, adoptive model) and his merry band of acolytes, in deference to a precocious lack of talent.


With the emergence of the next generation closely dogging their heels, these revolutionaries are soon exposed for what they always were - merely the new status quo waiting patiently in the wings, who must at all costs, and against every challenge to their inherited position, maintain the stance of cultural rectitude. As always, the hard hitting common sense of Orwell is reassuringly instructive here - in identifying false assumptions based on -- predicting a continuation of the thing that is happening. Now the tendency to do this is not simply a bad habit, like inaccuracy or exaggeration, which one can correct by taking thought. It is a major mental disease, and its roots lie partly in cowardice and partly in the worship of power, which is not fully separable from cowardice. To which one might add, stupidity governed by the blindness of arrogance, which is not fully separable from fear.


The prevailing social democratic freedoms in what we like to call the civilized world means that every man and his dog reckons he can lay claim to the title of representative poet [literary politician] should he wish to do so, and such a claim would never be contested because the meaning of the term has long since lost its true value. Unbridled freedom (of expression) breeds meaninglessness in language - but then, it does keep legions of post-modernists assiduously employed in the circular task of intertextual self-promotion: I came, I saw, I signified. The internet has a more reliable memory component in the currency of our day-to-day dealings [Jean Luc Godard has observed, With digital, there is no past] and is a greater disseminator of what passes for critical information than any poet today who would dare claim guardianship of the pale fire and historical truth.


We dont want priests or soothsayers, and we can certainly do without the autocratic semiotician, but we do need archaeologists of the spirit. Once upon a time, books meant something. It is rumoured that Orpheus was killed in a rock slide and the Eumenides sacked Parnassus.





With digital, there is no past,

says Jean-Luc Godard. Either way,

the button is redundant. Voice-command

is thought - the fear deep and futureless

as history, desire to appease which

remains featureless, not the disorganized

weather it truly is, as much a part of

the breathing stars as constancy of rock.

The Mr Whippy Man weaves

Greensleeves in and out of suburbia; a

caravan in search of a trade-route

via the village that never existed.


The latest reports from the semiotic laboratories inform us, by cypher, that language is a damaged imprint jettisoned by redundant thought processes, - idea is the husk of idea, a misprision of perception and misalignment of historical perspective; hyper-real theory in the first instance yet to be constructed. Will the printed word be reduced to a set of algorithms and instruction manuals only accessible on-line? Will the caption replace the plot and the novel, and will the visual image serve as no more than pictographic reference for what once passed for historical continuum? Drink deep of the Cauldron of Forgetfulness. These and other leading questions of the moment appearing daily on a monitor near you. The continuity of thought is deeply fractured, and we are heading into the Gorgons cave of amnesia. The Gods in disgust have departed through a hole in the ozone until such time as we can again fully embrace fear in all its primal, stark honesty - transmuting it to vision with an hallucinogenic intensity. Only then will natures Gods enter back through that mirror. Meanwhile, prestige has superseded prescience and the face of poetry has become in many respects a death mask.


Broadly speaking then, the post-colonial world is the world of the bureaucrat - arbiter of systems and mainstay of disinformation, ubiquitous dismantler of histories and cultural legacies. Emerging out of all this, one soon becomes aware that, at least within the New Zealand context [we are insular and smug and we like it that way] the land of the long white cloud is, in effect, a shroud of a more poisonous vapour. [If we cant cope with it, we ignore it]. A deep sense of shame resides in the post-colonial psyche of having been expelled into Eden [by association we must include one other Edenic state, Tasmania, reassuringly known as the Apple Isle and in many ways a closely guarded literary enterprise, though maybe at times a victim of its own insularity in what Laurence Durrell termed, isle-o-mania] with the brute knowledge gained of damage done, and genocidal crimes committed, in the very act of acquisition. In the final analysis, the formidable Anglo-Saxon reserve (oh, the turning of the worm!) becomes a monument to its own xenophobia.


We are young enough to remember our guilt but not mature enough to admit it. And this exclusivity of denial - of a peoples sense of personal and collective elitism - is gathered from and expressed, or should that be, non-expressed through its official art and literature, - with a nationalistic sticker slapped upon it as product. This gives rise to an unconnectedness euphemistically called the village mentality a phrase somehow designed to make such guilt, if not gilt-edged, at least acceptable. Acceptable in the sense that cottage industry is acceptable. The product, however, is a lie and the truth of the matter (for which one should read) a sense of identity, is deeply flawed but without that admission.


Such an intractable self-regard can only breed a nationalistic consciousness that is at once neurotic and accumulatively paranoid (and paranoia after rugby is a favourite pastime in New Zealand). All is not well in the Garden of Eden, in Gods very own real-estate, where the same promotional multi-media CD plays its mantra in the dream-scapes of the citizens over and over as The Anatomy of Amnesia. The head may be severed from its past but it still talks! In this case, history will not say sorry - but I told you so.

Ask any liberal or national prime minister of the day. Yet never expect the truth from any winery-sponsored, 'poet laureate of the year' (from his elevation, the world is a sweet-meadowed place) whose poetic utterances are only required to meet the needs any air-brushed life-style or House & Garden magazine, and corporate sponsored wine festivals, where the Dionysian investiture has all the relevance of a liveried, car-park attendant.




A journey is a balancing of tensions;

a ravine, a man and his echo.


The benediction and malice of gods.

Metamorphoses. An eye for distances, a full sail.


Earth, air, fire, water; flux in preservation,

that which is fluid assumes identity, for what went

before comes after.


Levels of light at ten to five, late June,

is honey yellow as flame.


A tortoise-shaped island flies

over the horns of Australia.


Black winds battle-locked under

earth burst forth a mountain fuming.


'And when he felt that what he saw was true

He entertained the public with his knowledge'.



© Stephen Oliver, 2005

The Poet As Fraud: A Composite first published in this revised version, June 2005 issue of Antipodes: A North American Journal of Australian Literature