History & Memory
There is a phrase I often use to annoy friends, confuse children, and make myself chuckle insanely when there seems little obvious reason for doing so: ‘Memory is like an eggplant: grey, with big ears and a trunk.’
After you’ve thought about that for a minute and soaked up a little of the lack of profundity, or half-smiled at the knowing wink at the expense of human fallibility, you should come to the conclusion that there is something to the point. What point? You say. Well, that we, poor human students of human affairs, are unconscious to our own defects until someone else points them out. Shaw acting as teacher of human weakness tells us: ‘We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.’
What history shares with its close ally memory is that it is prey to the same feeble failings as all other human endeavours: people. We do not see our blindsides precisely because we are blind, and in our advance towards understanding, we approach staggering, blindsided and backwards, crashing into one historical obstacle after another with the perspective offered with a rear-view mirror that shows events in the parlour-trick curved mirror of partiality as we would like to see them. For most of the time, even when we’re not even aware that we are partial, it’s equally likely that we would not care if we did.
But where does this leave poetry? Well, as someone probably once said (and under the affluence of incahol, no doubt) ‘History is like poetry; it ends in “y”‘. Profound as this might be, it doesn’t get us very far. In ancient times, the poet was the historian. In Anglo Saxon times, The Battle Of Malden, was a record of events of a spoken age. Today the Bedouin poets (millionaires, from the wealth of TV programmes like Poet Million, it must be added) though now versed in written Arabic, still commit to memory huge swathes of traditional Nabati poetry. The insult, the upkeep of honour, the battle record that pays no heed of bias, the panegyric to the Sheikh; all are still used just as beautifully they were at the time of ‘Amru Al Qays in the 6th century of pre-Islamic Arabia. The poet is still the tribal historian who keeps births, marriages and deaths in his head in a stupendously long and mellifluous poetic monologue.
Today, in the West, writing poetry that holds a position on anything more than the root systems of dwarf potting trees seems somewhat infra dig. Somewhere, we went off-track, it could be argued, and now we write poems for other reasons: love, death, acne and hamsters-the full gamut of Homo 21st-Centrius Westernarius.
‘History never repeats itself; at best it sometimes rhymes,’ said Mark Twain. Just as poetry that sticks the same sound on regularly patterned lines seems to be making a comeback, perhaps now is the time to climb to the top of Mount Krapipeecee and stare into the wild blue yonder, yearning, perhaps, for an infusion of bias, battle and blood?
Poetry is the voice of beauty, the voice of reason and the voice of discussion, for sure; but it is also the voice of treason; the outburst of anger at injustice; the voice of those without a voice; a prayer for penitence and for perjury; a mouthpiece for modesty and immodesty; a voice that talks in shouts and in whispers, but does not whimper in the corners of human discourse. Malcolm X said that ‘History is a people’s memory, and without a memory, man is demoted to the lower animals.’ In our very real present, there are hidden voices, and it is the job of the poet to make them heard and to dismiss them; to raise up and put down. The poet has arguably never been in greater demand when at the same time unable to meet the demands of the time.
Let poetry expand again. Poets should use the blindside that memory has presented us with so cleverly in our appreciation of history. In other words, do as Gunter Eich famously said: “Be sand, not oil, in the machinery of the world.”
At the SCR, these two ingredients have always been there in plenty down the Creek. We hope you send us more.
Nigel Holt and the Shit Creek Editors
We received the following request from the National Library of Australia:
“The National Library of Australia aims to build a comprehensive collection of Australian publications to ensure that Australians have access to their documentary heritage now and in the future. The Library has traditionally collected items in print, but it is also committed to preserving electronic publications of lasting cultural value.
“PANDORA, Australia’s Web Archive, was set up by the Library in 1996 to enable the archiving and provision of long-term access to online Australian publications. Since then we have been identifying online publications and archiving those that we consider have national significance. Additional information about PANDORA can be found on the Library’s server at: http://pandora.nla.gov.au/index.html. We would like to include ‘The Shit Creek Review’ and ‘The Chimaera’ in the PANDORA Archive.”
Editors’ Poetic Hit Picks
Nigel Holt: SCR is home to the mad, bad and dangerous to know. This poem is too dangerous to forget. Loney’s ‘Kung Fu Monkeys’ is a poem that sets up the bar with a double surreal in a fresh tumbler, has your eyeballs come out on stalks with the odd aroma and flavour, leaving a profoundly disturbing existential aftertaste on the mind. A double Alzheimer’s barman please… and don’t forget the…
Patricia Wallace Jones: I’ve loved watching Sam Byfield grow as a poet, and I’m very partial to his China poems, having seen many of them in early drafts at small poetry workshops. I love seeing those poems honed now and accepted in fine journals. I know they are real. And no one loves ‘real’ in poems more than me.
Don Zirilli: Dennis Loney’s ‘Kung Fu Monkeys Hijack Armored Car’ — headline as metaphor, which he extends to Surreal lengths though not to create a Surrealist poem, but rather something richly psychologically real. Or, at least, something I personally find very familiar.
Angela France: Chris Potter’s ‘Dreams’. It is rare that a poem about dreams really works but this one does; I really enjoyed the piling on of off-key images and the free-floating anxiety they engendered.
Paul Stevens: Crikey! Shit Creek must be Dennis Loney Central! I’m going for his ‘Crawl Space’ because of the disturbing claustrophobic squeeze of working through the damned stressful thing. God it’s sordid. If you like your poetry uncomfortable, this is the one! Obviously I do. But I like craftsmanship, too, and that’s what Dennis has used to build the Crawl Space. Dennis Loney scores three goals and is Man of the Match!