Friday, July 22, 2011

Friday Poem: Credo by James McAuley

On my holiday I was introduced to the work of an Australian poet named James McAuley, and I haven't stopped being excited since.

You see, Australia's a nice place to live, and we have some neat things in our history. But we don't have a lot of history. The first British Australian colony began in 1788, the same year that came the first rumbles of the French Revolution: in other words, the same year that modernism came of age. Britain's history reaches far back to the earliest Christendom. Even the United States can look back with fondness on Puritan and Huguenot settlers (though it rarely does). But what does Australia have? Not a whole lot. Our entire history has taken place during the modernist era; we have, as the chap said of twentieth-century Scotland, "no gods and precious few heroes."

No Beowulf poet for us; no Edmund Spenser; not even a Chesterton or Tolkien to our name. Up till now, I had believed that Banjo Paterson was the acme of Australian letters, and it's been downhill ever since.

Not entirely, as it turns out.

James McAuley (1917-1976) started life as an extreme left-wing anarchist. It seems to have been early on, however, that he became annoyed with modernist poetry--nonsensical free verse without rhyme or reason. In 1944 he masterminded the Ern Malley Hoax: randomly selecting lines from encyclopaedias, he slapped together a set of meaningless poems and sent them off to a prominent modernist literary magazine. He was, he told them, the old maid sister of a dead poet, who wished the dead man's work to be recognised after his death. The modernist establishment went gaga and Ern Malley was hailed as the new great voice of modernist poetry in Australia. When McAuley tore off his whiskers and announced that it was all mockery, the literati seethed with resentment.

In 1952 McAuley sealed his fate by converting to Roman Catholicism and publishing A Letter to John Dryden in a prominent literary magazine. In it he systematically insulted everything he could lay his hands on, starting with modernism ("Neurotic modern mind...loud, indistinct, moronic") and riding gaily on to tilt at TS Eliot ("To drift, and flutter, hesitate, opine/Hint at a meaning, murmur that God knows/And gently settle in a soup of prose"), public schooling ("This specious monster"), universities ("Where Christ, Augustine, and the Stagirite/Lie dead and buried, neither wrong nor right/Under a sneer of silence cold as arctic night"), communism, and so on. Even worse, he held up Christianity as the truth--here alone the poem declines vicious satire:
Not seldom men in seeking to defy
Their Lord have seen the pity in His eye;
Many a one has held the clothes like Saul,
And risen not long after to be Paul.
Worst of all, McAuley wrote his poem in iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter which rhymed. Quelle scandale! To introduce structure and discipline into art! Even McAuley's choice of poetic form was a slap in the face of modernism.

James McAuley went on to write several volumes of poetry, including Captain Quiros, an epic about the discovery of Australia. He was also prominent in the founding of Quadrant, Australia's most prominent conservative magazine, and the Democratic Labour Party which to this day is one of the strongest pro-life political parties in Australia. In his later years he went to become the Chair of English at the University of Tasmania, an institution which would probably like to hush it all up now. After his death in 1976 from cancer, a peculiar thing happened: a soft and impenetrable veil of silence fell over James McAuley. It was as if his name and works suddenly became taboo. His books went quietly out of print. His poetry was firmly hushed up and ignored. But what about Ern Malley, one of the most famous literary pranks in the world? Ah, McAuley's only important work...his greatest modernist poetry. And so James McAuley passed not only beyond life but also beyond knowledge.

Folks, meet James McAuley--an Australian poet, and a Christian, and my new hero.

This poem reminds me strongly of JRR Tolkien's Mythopoeia.

That each thing is a word
Requiring us to speak it;
From the ant to the quasar,
From clouds to ocean floor--

The meaning not ours, but found
In the mind deeply submissive
To the grammar of existence,
The syntax of the real;

So that alien is changed
To human, thing into thinking:
For the world's bare tokens
We pay golden coin,

Stamped with the king's image;
And poems are prophecy
Of a new heaven and earth,
A rumour of resurrection.


Christina Baehr said...

This made me happy.


Thank you.

Also, was thinking that "The Syntax of the Real" would make an excellent title for an essay on his work/thought.

Maybe we can hope for some kind of McAuley-appreciation resurgence in time for the centenary of his birth?

Suzannah said...

And thank YOU for introducing me to him.

I feel like my efforts on behalf of a John Buchanaissance have gone pretty well so far. McAuley can be next!

Anonymous said...

McAuley sounds interesting. I hadn't heard of him before, so I'll have to look him up.

However, according to Wikipedia, Australia was settled between 42,000 and 48,000 years ago. That's a lot of history! Just not, you know, BRITISH. It's kind of like me saying that was no history in my hometown before my parents settled there.

Amy said...

What a discovery. You have piqued my interest. :)


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