"You have no choice but to live in your time" - A Deconstruction of Martin Harrison's poetry collection "Summer"

Thesis (M.A.), 2009
15 Pages, Grade: High Distinction 85%


MARTIN HARRISON - in the course of our lectures Harrison claimed; “You have no choice but to live in your time”. What does he mean by this, and how does it influence his poetry?

Martin Harrison’s anthology of lyric poetry Summer and the verse prose Music lucidly articulates the disposition of the postmodern poet having no choice but to write in the time in which they are living. His poetry of verse and experimental prose lucidly articulates the angst and dilemmas of living and narrating in the ambiguous epoch of Postmodernity. Paul Cheselka had once commented on the prolific poet Borges:

In Borges’ poetic cosmovision the most important symbol is time; it is a representation of man and his human condition. Like time, men are in a constant state of flux; they are both forever different and always essentially the same. 1

This is immensely obvious in Harrison’s anthology of poetry which mesmerizes the reader through his encapsulating imagery, juxtapositioning of unlikely entities, and experimentation and representation of man in his time. Specifically, Harrison focusses on infinitesimal moments and the ramifications which unfold in a ripple- like effect to convey an ontological appreciation of poetry and poetics which are a product of their respective culture, an aesthetic and evocative pastiche of the time they are written. We notice a disparaging discomfort within these poems, perhaps a semblance of Postmodern disharmony and anxiety infused with the overwhelming nuances of hybridity, which seems to be attributed to the element of time and its influences on the contemporaneous individual, and poetic artist.

Harrison, having no choice but to write of the vices and concerns of his time, instigates a melancholic tone, and an overwhelming mood of low modality with an omnipresent yearning for comprehension of what could be definitive of the Postmodern hybrid personage. This examination of human cynicism, and the search for self hood may be attributed to the uncertainties that govern Australian, and Western society of Post- September 11, and the continuance of the Iraqi War. However, in light of this, Harrison is able to induce his concerns with honest self reflection and careful selection of contrary images. To quote Robert Scholes in his descriptions and prescriptions of the universal poet and his art:

…a true poem turns on some additional neural circuitry which enables him to produce these high powered verbal objects called poems. The result, in Saussurean terms, is that the poet’s utterance (parole) comes from a different sign-system (langue) than employed by an ordinary speaker’. (Structuralism in Literature, pg. 29) 2

This is ever so true of Harrison’s poems which comprise of antithetical objects to produce extensive insight to postmodern preoccupations.

Harrison illustrates the frustrations of attempting to live and write in his time by undertaking a Neo Formalist approach in his writing. In his lecture, Harrison exclaimed the activeness of writing, the disposition of languages took precedence to philosophical suppositions. Perhaps this explains his preoccupation with illustrating, ‘describing and prescribing’ (his words) ‘made spaces’, rather than provoking resolutions. This is evident in the stream of style that runs through most of his anthologies. Most of his poems are presented in a uniform style as they adhere to a consistent structure and metre. Distinctively, his form appears to be a response to shifting cultural paradigms, events and inadequacies which problematise the epoch of postmodernity.3 Living in a culture of “Post” and “meta” which proposes its own set of anti-establishmentarian concerns, and not because the world at large has become rebellious, but rather due to a decomposition of establishment, a dismantling of hierarchy and a suspended belief in a unity with an epicenter. Globalisation, internationalism and hybrid identities, seem to be definitive of the 21st century mindset.

Harrison is drawn to literalising the complexity of the contemporary temporal state by focusing on infinitesimal moments in ones daily life. In his fist poem Summer from his anthology of the same title, Harrison engages in extracting meaning, exploring the words which prescribe the priori and meta 4, and articulating the concise words and sounds which may define the lonely tourist’s existence, who like the poet, is engulfed by the anxieties of living and attaining meager comprehensions. From this perspective, the global, cosmopolitan individual en mass, is this lonely and overwhelmed tourist. Seeking a home, a comfort zone, a loci of emancipation, only to be suppressed by ‘artifice’ and lacking any understanding. This is eloquently established through intertextuality, in the universal persona of ‘Odysseus’, whose epic journey had once conjured reverent findings according to the Aristotelian model of peripeteia and anagnorisis. In contrast, the postmodern hybrid ‘tourist’ merely confronts a ‘swimming pool’, disappointingly definitive of modern constructs. One may consider the metonymic disposition of the swimming pool, as a substitute body of water. Unlike its natural counterpart, the ocean, this man made construct provides some superficial comfort in its ‘coolness’. Intriguingly, Harrison’s inevitability of writing in his time is most evident here, particularly since the persona is apparently distressed by the lack of familiar.

Additionally, the repetition of the word ‘coolness’ structures the poem. The constructed swimming pool seems a surrogate for the postmodern persona’s dilemma of seeking answers in an epiphanic sea of enclosures. This swimming pool ‘reflects’ the city, thus signifying a mirror of the evolution or digression of industrialization. Despite its derogatory connotations, its ‘coolness’ is the only component which offsets the perils of ‘summer’, described through the word choice of ‘quiet water’, however, immediately juxtaposed to a metaphor of ‘stagnancy and grief’ in the tenth stanza. One may contrast this to the ‘bare seas’ in the previous stanza, perhaps a ‘nostalgic’ inclusion of the ‘unattainable’5, nature. This metonymy of the ‘swimming pool’ is attributed to ‘a texture which seems to look past you’, and emphasised in the parenthesis, a poetic device which conveys an utterance to a feeling of disappointment since the function of water and the ocean has lost its majestic qualities.

Here too, one is given the impression that the cosmovision of the postmodern personage is altered, even if the symbology has remained essentially familiar. Despite, Harrison’s attempts to write in his time, a number of his poems adapt the ocean is a universal signifier, even though its connotations insinuate an ambiguous, unfamiliar entity. The universal symbol of the ocean has been replaced with the omnipresence of the ‘image’. In the poem Summer, the epic search for ‘home’ as Odysseus had long ago yearned, has transcended to a transformative mindset, since in the twenty first century, the hybrid persona is preoccupied with the pursuit of the ‘world-famous shot’. The conveyance of a few fleeting moments with their ‘priori’ and ‘meta’ of significations culminate to ‘figures drifting, ghostlike, on a riverbank.’ The tourist persona, and poet, realises their rootlesness, suppressed by disorientation as their corrigible existence is ‘meaningless’. Cultural restrictions abound due to the barrage of complacencies. This description of a moment in time, ‘this split second’, Harrison prescribes, is nothing more than a distorted image, further enhanced by the fact that the tourist is ‘jet-lagged’ and engulfed by superficiality and epiphanic surroundings. The poet’s illumination of time is portrayed by the fleeting snap shot, a minute depiction ‘snapped’ and ‘already visualised’.

The contemporary poet is subdued by the images and cinematics. Specifically, the motif of the image, poignantly disclosed as a ‘snap shot’ is reminiscent of Jean Baudrillard’s essay ‘Simulacra and Simulation’ (1994) . The distortion of reality, the image, a disintegrating malevolence within the search for the real, the unique identity. Disconcertingly, the image does not present substantial answers, but instead reminds the persona of their own displacement, in Summer even the Americans walk through ‘a golden shrine’ ‘heiffer- garlanded with cameras’. The world has become a smaller place, however appreciation of identity is a distant camouflage. Particularly, as Baudrillard asserts, a cosmos of ‘signs’ and codes have saturated the contemporary mindset. In his fourth proposal of the ‘simulacrum’, Baudrillard claims the sign ‘bears no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum’ 6. There seems to be a diminishment of what is termed ‘reality’ since manufactured products are reflective of dysfunctional aesthetics rather than ethical pragmatics as culture is mirrored through the acquisition of object, or commodity rather than spiritual fulfilment. Therefore, it is almost unavoidable for poets not to infuse such preoccupations in their writings, as the dominance of commodity, cinematics and image proliferate modern society.

From this perspective, it is obvious that Harrison composes his poetry in a way which stipulates such dilemmas of the contemporary human condition. Harrison describes a search for meaning in a cosmovision of ‘meaningless’ ‘greyness’7. This search for meaning in a time, which is uprooted, becomes accentuated in his poem Flowers: 1. Landscape, with its nostalgic portrayal; ‘in another nearly forgotten image’ that of a slightly familiar, largely unfamiliar natural ‘landscape’. Here, Harrison experiments with the externalized and internalized perceptions of the hybrid, emulated by a ‘Country with too many names’ while the natural is becoming obsolete since the ‘dead branches’ are ‘of mirrored white gums.’ The reader is evoked by the loss of authenticity, a ‘mirage’ of naturalness. Similar to the poem Summer, in this poem, Harrison utilises the metonymy of the ‘ocean’ as a distorted image, through the simile;

(it’s an ocean as abstract

as snow on a TV screen )


Excerpt out of 15 pages


"You have no choice but to live in your time" - A Deconstruction of Martin Harrison's poetry collection "Summer"
The University of Sydney
High Distinction 85%
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Martin Harrison is a leading Australian poet with a keen interest in projecting a profound ontological perspective of the human condition.
Deconstruction, Martin, Harrison, Summer, High, Distinction
Quote paper
Anastasia Louridas (Author), 2009, "You have no choice but to live in your time" - A Deconstruction of Martin Harrison's poetry collection "Summer", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/134668


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