This work is a feature article entitled “O Brave New World – The Undercurrent of Truth’.
It is intended for a literary magazine or newspaper with an audience
which is interested in Australian literature.–
O Brave New World -
The Undercurrent Of Truth
by Hannah Nugent, Fairholme College, Toowoomba
In these days of society underpinned by contentious issues, our nation tends to dismiss poetry which may reflect negatively on our national identity, yet perhaps it is this same poetry that we should be embracing as a voice to unite us. Hannah Nugent investigates …
Prompted by a mainstream culture devoid of widely-known contemporary Australian poetry, the suggestion has been made to introduce a national Poet Laureate. A concept proposed by many, but supported by few, the position of Laureate is viewed by poets as the death of creativity; British poet Carole Ann Duffy has said that ‘no self-respecting poet should ever have to [write commissioned work]’. But whether a Laureate should be introduced or not, it is time that this drought of voices ended.
Most people would be pressed to name an Australian poet other than Paterson or Lawson, and certainly these classic bush poets have become an iconic part of our history, but their value as a voice for our nation is outdated. Their well-loved words have been rendered inaccurate, simply because times have changed; Australia is no longer the land of bush-loving drovers that it was. However, the quiet, composed voice of the poet remains an undercurrent of our society, eloquently articulating and accurately capturing the issues and unpleasant realities which are so often dismissed. Yet, as a nation, we often choose to ignore this quiet trickle of wisdom, labelling it as ‘different’ and therefore wrong. For a society that values egalitarianism and freedom of expression, we are surprisingly critical of anyone who dares challenge the status quo. Perhaps a dip into the subversive is exactly what this culture-starved ‘brave new world’ needs.
Michael Dransfield is a perfect example of an unconventional poet dismissed by our conformist society. His verse, abstract in language and form, deals with such societal issues considered ‘taboo’ by established culture: drug addictions, mental illness, ‘heteroflexibility’, and those social groups drowned out by the mainstream.
Born in Sydney in 1948, Dransfield wrote close to one thousand poems in his 24 years, which, according to his editor, Rodney Hall, ‘caused a ripple of excitement when they were first published…in the context of poetry which tended to take pride in tailored understatement and civilised ironic commentaries on society’. He set himself the task of ‘convert[ing] all aspects of life to poetry’, and certainly achieved this. Dransfield’s poetry is far from tailored or civilised, presenting instead a controversial view of Australian life as seen through the drug-streaked lens of the poet. Unashamedly, he exposes the issues which characterise the darker side of Australian identity. This unconventional point of view is reflected in the following extracts:
to be a poet in australia
is the ultimate commitment.
when y’ve been thrown out of the last car for speaking truthfully or mumbling poems
…the emptiness is not these stranded
endless plains but knowing that you are completely
along in a desert full of strangers
[From Like this for years]
Insufficient eats you out
you start to
you can’t get up.
That’s what they call
[From Still life with hypodermic]
Dransfield’s poetry ranges in theme from harshly anti-establishmentarian socio-political comments to the spiritual and personal; many of his works are poignant sketches of both his own and his friends’ experiences as addicts, his itinerancy, and his struggle with his own identity. Yet, by writing about these confronting and audacious subjects, Dransfield not only destigmatises them, but normalises them, providing a voice and identity for the marginalised and oppressed.
Despite his perceived flaws, Michael Dransfield appears to have somewhat broken through the ice of society’s pretensions. Described as ‘terrifyingly close to genius’ and ‘one of the few contemporary Australian poets to have a genuine popular following’, he has pushed the boundaries, ‘[claiming] a place…avoided by his peers as too ostentatious and risky’, according to his editor, Rodney Hall.
Dransfield’s poems simultaneously distance the average reader from his reality of drugs and displacement and appeal to the collective psyche through themes of identity, loss, and relationships. His predominantly free verse is characterised by a loose usage of standard grammar and punctuation conventions coupled with irregular metre, frequent enjambment, and unconventional passages – some of which flow like a disjointed train of thought, and others which read almost like prose.
While at times challenging to read and understand, Dransfield’s poems eloquently capture a part of our national identity which is so often overlooked or dismissed. They have an obscure beauty, and are embellished with elaborate imagery and lyrical metaphors. To illustrate these seemingly contradictory techniques, an example of Dransfield’s verse must be examined:
1. The citizens group in categories/officials, wives, children, priests, revolutionaries.
2. They enter the compartment assigned to their category/classroom, office, kitchen, garret.
3. The compartments are then sealed/from within/by the official whose function is to seal.
4. Each compartment has been scientifically designed/nothing is wasted/each contains
(a) equipment necessary to its correct functioning;
(b) for decoration, one item of official art; and
(c) a window with an authorised view, designed to be pleasant.
5. The citizens perform their duties/as required/as trained/as usual.
6. At specified intervals, the citizens may stop work/look out the window/at the view. Refreshment is dispensed/from a machine/tea from one tap, coffee from another/sugar, milk/all is hygienic.
7. Citizens resume their duties.
8. When their time-quota is completed, citizens file out, regroup, return to home-cubicles/transport is provided.
9. On arriving home, citizens will change from duty wear to recreational uniform.
10. Citizens will perform the functions of eating, cleaning body & uniform, resting, engaging in specified social activities.
11. After a specified interval, citizens will regroup in categories/regroup the day is sealed from within/nothing is wasted/nothing will occur.
© Michael Dransfield
First published in ‘The Inspector of Tides’ in 1972, this confronting verse provides a harshly satirical commentary and presents a vivid metaphorical image of society as a machine. The poem, written in eleven ‘stanzas’, each forming one point in the list, does not adhere to any particular poetic form, and reads almost like prose, with irregular metre and absence of rhyme. The sporadic, yet strategic unconventional use of slashes further emphasises the mechanistic nature of Dransfield’s Society, acting almost as a form of enjambment by breaking up the flow of words. However, the slashes also cause halts in the pace, simulating the stop-start motion of machinery and furthering Dransfield’s portrayal of Australian culture as an oppressive ‘brave new world’.
Throughout the piece, Dransfield builds a disturbing image of society reminiscent of Huxley’s dystopian civilisation: highly oppressive and structured, with emphasis removed almost entirely from the individual. ‘Official art’ and ‘authorised view[s]’ are provided to the citizens in their categorical compartments, who go about their day ‘perform[ing] their duties/as required/as trained/as usual.’
“Although [Dransfield’s] voice speaks primarily for those marginalised…by established culture, the themes underlying his poetry speak, on some level, to all Australians.”
‘The citizens’ are treated always as a group noun, and described as ‘perform[ing]…functions’ as components of a machine would. The final phrase, ‘nothing is wasted/nothing will occur’ reflects Dransfield’s views on our consumerist society in which productivity is maximised at the cost of individuality and action. Aside from the most obvious theme of societal interaction, Dransfield has eloquently addressed his feelings of oppression and displacement within a society that seems to have little place for his outspoken individuality.
It is this brazen truthfulness which forms Dransfield’s appeal. Although his voice speaks primarily for those marginalised and judged by established culture, the themes underlying his poetry speak, on some level, to all Australians. We may not be ready to proclaim him as Australia’s Poet Laureate, but it is certainly time that Australians appreciated the controversial beauty of Michael Dransfield’s poetry. We may not agree with his point of view, but it is pointless to deny that his poetry encapsulates controversial, but important aspects of our national identity. We must delve into the depths of our ‘brave new world’ and recognise that it is time the seemingly deviant, yet truthful undercurrent of Dransfield’s psyche flows into the mainstream of our minds.
Associate Professors Stephen Torre & Richard Lansdown, Discipline of English, JCU, Cairns.
We were highly impressed by the standard of intellectual sophistication and written expression right across the entries, all of which show talent and promise for the future. Well done, everybody! We were particularly struck by the young writers’ ability to confront complex contemporary issues, often through the lens of works of literature (like Macbeth or The Great Gatsby) that are themselves complex creations. But we also saw young literary critics, young historians, and young sociologists, as well as young debaters and journalists. It looks like the future of discursive, professional writing is assured in Queensland, which is wonderful to see, and we congratulate each and every entrant, as well as their teachers and families who supported them.
There has to be a winner, and one feature article stood out for us: ‘O Brave New World: The Undercurrent of Truth’. This was a profoundly mature and well organised discussion of one of the ‘tortured souls’ of Australian literature, the poet Michael Dransfield, who died of the effects of drug addiction at the young age of twenty-four, in 1972. This is a difficult topic, but the author made a powerful and sympathetic case for Dransfield’s talent, and analysed one of his poems with great care and cogency. As a permanently young poet due to his early death, Dransfield would be delighted that his work still commands the attention of young people in a busy age, when poetry is so often neglected. We heartily congratulate the winner, and wish him or her every success in the future.