Having a cold shave, my mirror a sheet of tin foil wrapped around a copy of The Dream Songs, my face was distorted and pale. I thought back over the last two days. I had witnessed the best and worst of what poetry can do, when it’s taken seriously; when it’s lived: the elation, passionate discussion, language torn apart and reassembled, the brilliant exchange of ideas, the inspired moments between young and old. Then there is the resentment, ego, fierce competition, jealous carping, depression. It was all on show at The Island. There was nowhere to hide. Every style and genre, every age and range of experience.
It’s been a privilege and a curse to be reporting from the front line. But what is the front line? The Waggaists are either holed up in the citadel, planning and scheming for a massive showdown, or they consist of many smaller units, scattered over The Island. There is no warfare. The Waggaists are mostly invisible and silent, and the poets are having a great time - swimming, fishing, drinking, brawling. Having overheard many conversations as I walk around the shore, it’s obvious that the Red K and the Waggaists are not being taken seriously. “The Red K has already been beaten,” one poet said. “This is great! Why go to Greece when you can go to war,” said another. And this from Sam Coleridge: “Redness will not prevail. I have entered that barren landscape and found no fine passage. Emotion has fled. The lyrical heart has been drained of blood. It is over.”
Rodney Hall had gathered the poets together by the wharf. They were such a ragged looking bunch. Sitting on the canopies of boats, standing in the tall ship’s rigging, asleep in deck chairs, astride jet-skis, in trees, on the sand... a huge, restless crowd, shouting abuse and heckling Hall who was doing his best to find some order. Emily Dickinson spoke “Who said you could be the headmaster?” Ed Dorn, watching the proceedings through a porthole he'd cut in the side of the cardboard box he’d slept in, shouted “Oh shut up, dasher! I should have sorted you out at the airport!” Other poets joined in. “Where’s Wallace-Crabbe?” yelled Ron Simpson. “It’s his shout.” Then Imre Salusinszky stepped onto the wharf and raised his hands. “As your chair, I feel it’s only proper that I take command.” “Piss off, Imre,” a poet yelled from the back of the crowd. “Every one of my six hundred grant applications were euthanased while you were at the helm!” Rodney climbed onto a palette of Immigrant Chronicles. “Some decorum, please! I have crucial news.” The heckling and jostling for position continued. The Symbolists were waving banners with shooting stars and scorpions painted on them. The Deep Imagists were quoting each other. The Vitalists were pointing out those whose work they had influenced. The scene was moving rapidly from chaos to melt-down. Rodney grabbed a flare gun, held it over his head and fired. At the end of its trajectory, a red sphere floated and smoked. “The next poet to speak out of line gets a flare in the face.” The crowd settled, then fell silent. Rodney cleared his throat. “Wallace-Crabbe has been taken hostage by the Waggaists. He is alright. I saw him last night while in hiding, though obviously he’s been shaken by the ordeal. I don’t know where they are keeping him, but I suspect he’s in the citadel. We need to do something and we need to do it soon. Up to this point we’ve all been guilty of sitting on our hands while waiting for things to happen. Mostly it’s been like a beach scene from Apocalypse Now. The time for action has arrived. The waiting room needs to be cleared.” Just then a book came flapping through the air and landed on the wharf. Imre picked it up. It was a copy of Ooga-Booga, by Frederick Seidel. Inside was a letter, which Imre read aloud “Seidel is with the Waggaists. He is their newly-appointed general.” Rodney stepped down and addressed the crowd, making eye-contact with everyone but Bukowski, who had his head in a form-guide. “Who threw that book?” John Berryman pointed at Philip Hodgins who pointed at Lauren Williams who nodded at Jaya Savige who winked at Robert Frost. Rodney spoke carefully, “Only a traitor would know these red details. Whoever threw this book will be forced to wear a wire-mesh mouth guard and spend the rest of the war in a cage.” Jamie Grant spoke up: “I saw Nigel Roberts reading a book after breakfast and I know it was poetry because he was laughing out the sides of his eyes and he had a look like solitude and when I walked past he slipped it into his leather jacket.” Auden got to his feet. “Lithe!" he yelled - he had developed a lisp since losing his teeth - and launched himself at Grant. They went off the end of the wharf and plunged into the river. It was like watching a herringboned scarecrow belt the Christ out of an altar-boy. The poets soon tired of the thrashing Auden was handing out and turned their attention back to Rodney, who hadn’t stopped talking. “.... been saying for days, so in the light of all that, I’d like to suggest we meet back here on the wharf after lunch for a war-council meeting. We will spread our maps. We will put our heads and hearts on the line and draw up a plan of attack. We must put aside our differences, ambitions and grudges. We must join together to bring Wallace-Crabbe home and end this tyranny forever!” “What about Wilding?” someone shouted. “Oh, yes, of course, Wilding,” Rodney said. “We’ll rescue him as well. Now, are you with me?” “I am,” said Imre. “Are you with me?” Rodney asked, pacing back and forth along the wharf.
Rodney Hall was hoping for the kind of response a Roman general would inspire as he walked the front lines prior to battle: the raising of spears, the banging of shields, the deep roar of blood-lust and anticipation. But there on the wharf, as a light rain began to fall, the poets simply nodded, speaking in tones both bright and dark, and drifted away. To be openly enthusiastic; to be, as John Forbes might have said, “Too Hollywood for the ABC”, wasn’t their style or in their nature.
At the meeting, the poets were placed into platoons, each with a leader elected by secret ballot. Poets who had no obvious affiliations with a movement or school were assigned one. David Brooks was in a rage. “Forget it. I’m not going with the Vitalists.” Ron Silliman got him in a headlock and wrestled him into submission. Myron Lysenko went from group to group, scribbling notes. He finally settled on The Wayfaring Sons of Bedlam, a school cobbled together by Rae Desmond-Jones. Bukowski and Ed Dorn were at the end of the jetty, playing darts with garfish and a foam esky lid with a target drawn onto it. They had formed their own platoon, and were going to storm the barricades. When it suited them.
By mid afternoon the platoons and their leaders had gathered on the beach. Rodney inspected each unit, offering encouragement and advice. Every poet had been given special orders. The main thrust of Operation Red was to send splinter groups to different parts of The Island, taking down Waggaists where they found them and eventually reforming on the beach before the hill. It was there they planned to make a final stand. How they were going to breach the fortifications of the citadel, no-one knew. But they were primed for battle. The in-fighting was over. Keats and Tipping were in the same platoon, standing side by side. Murray and Tranter were showing each other their planks. Nigel Roberts and Auden were shadow boxing and laughing. Vicki Viidikas was showing Gwen Harwood how to throw a prawn net over a life-size cut-out of Seidel. Amanda Joy was instructing James K. Baxter in the art of setting fibre snares.
Rodney was about to give the order to move out, when a great commotion could be heard in the distance. The poets broke rank and ran down to the wharf. Coming around the point was a paddle steamer, its wheel throwing fantails of water. Music was blaring and on deck, men and women were waving and blowing whistles. Some were hanging from the ornate fret-worked railings, others were on the bow, their feet over the sides. A huge banner was flying: THE STAGE IS OUR PAGE. When the steamer had docked, Jayne Fenton Keane stepped forward and said “Surely you didn’t think we were going to let you do this on your own!” Rodney looked horrified. A lace monitor might have just clawed up his trouser leg. “But we were getting ready to leave! Plans have been drawn up, we're primed for battle!” PiO spoke: “You're going to have to wait. I’ve been in the bush beside the Murray river for days after I fell off Adamson’s boat. I’m knackered.” Rodney was about to complain, when all the poets got together and started talking and shouting, opening bottles of wine, rolling joints, sharing stories and going off to party. The pagers were inviting the stagers to join their platoons. Keats was chatting up Edwina Blush. Amanda Stewart kissed Shelley. James Dickey took Miles Merrill up the beach and set up a target range. Tug Dumley took Elizabeth Bishop by the hand and said “This is a great country! I love Horsetrailer,” to which Bishop replied “Your fingers will be Waggabait if you don’t let go.” John Berryman swept Alicia Sometimes off her feet, twirled her around, lowered her to the wharf, and together they did a slapstick ballroom routine. Ed Dorn told Emilie Zoey Baker that he was a fan. “You’ve heard me perform?” she asked. “No little darlin’, I just think you’re hot.” David Musgrave was handing out copies of the new Punchout and Waterwheel anthology. Ezra Pound walked up, grabbed a copy, and said “What page am I on?” Judith Beveridge was on the beach with Richard Hugo and William Stafford. Stafford picked up a bleached sea-horse and held it aloft, which inspired animated, lengthy discussion. Philip Norton took a white dove out of his hat and turned it into a sestina, which he gave to Felicity Plunkett who turned it into a black villanelle. When Sean M. Whelan started singing a cowboy ballad to Anne Sexton, Rodney Hall stormed off on his own. He went into his cabin, grabbed his hand-crafted, two hundred year-old recorder, then sat against a capstan and started playing. An oystercatcher answered him. He played another lilting run. A sand piper returned his call. The he went back and forth through the chromatic scale, going faster and faster until an entire family of currawongs went out of their heads and kamikaze’d into the steamer. Bukowski came stomping out of his Halvorsen cruiser, grabbed the recorder, broke it over his knee and threw the pieces into the river. “That’s all we need. A smart ass.”
K. Slessor, at the Front
K. Slessor, at the Front