When I was a child I thought reproductions were art. We had on our wall a print of Corot’s ‘Bent Tree’ which was, as far as I knew, the real thing. I grew up to discover that there were ‘original’ works out there somewhere. As it turned out some very fine art works were easily accessed in Melbourne at the National Gallery of Victoria. Nonetheless my fascination became inseparable from the notion of movement; the idea of travel. I would try to imagine myself in the places the artists referred to. I would read about literary life in Paris in the 1920s, London in the 1940s, New York and San Francisco in the 1950s. Places were tied to literary events. I became an avid consumer of of books like David Daiches’ mappings of British literary life or (later) Bill Corbett’s books about New York and Boston, and I would often read with a survey map or street directory handy. I didn’t ever imagine visiting any of these places.

You could say that I was merely a kind of literary tourist, a consumer of related trivia rather than the actual goods. In doing so you might not be considering your own (unquestioned) knowledge of where and what things are. When Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville brought out their Carcanet anthology A Various Art they (for no doubt admirable reasons) gave no biographical details about the poets. Getting hold of a copy of this book in Australia I felt I needed to know some of those things that, for a native, may have seemed irrelevant. My sympathy with the writers combined with an impatience with their purism.

Up until the mid-1960s Australians who moved to the UK were making a real commitment. In those days, for the less moneyed, it was a sea trip taking a few weeks. A first crossing of the equator was celebrated with a member of the ship’s crew dressing as King Neptune and ceremonially dunking the subjects. By the time of my first visit flight had long been the cheapest travel mode and no such glamour attached itself to the journey. I visited twice in 1987, stayed in Manchester for three months in 1992, and made a couple of subsequent trips. In 2006 I moved to Britain, to East Kent.

A few months before we left Australia we drove from Brisbane to Melbourne, a distance of about a thousand miles. Years earlier I’d driven from Adelaide northward to the Flinders Ranges. Over these vast and often ‘featureless’ spaces I found that I would concentrate on small things. In a generally dun landscape there were tiny bright flowers; seasonal (largely water-determined) native plants tenacious in the dry conditions. The road ahead was a flat, straight line, but next to it were delicate growths, only visible if you stopped the car. In Reyner Banham’s wonderful book Scenes from America Deserta the author notes how an arid patch near Norwich had seemed immense until he travelled to the United States, specifically to the deserts of the southwest. I have entered into Banham’s landscape from the opposite perspective. One of the things that I first became conscious of was colour. Just as English artists travelled to the south of Europe for ‘colour’, I began to note unfamiliar variations in England.

Australia was perceived by the early British observers as ‘colourless’, a ‘dun’ landscape of interest perhaps to topographers but not really suitable as a backdrop for high art. I’d see it instead as subtle. The variations in the colours of scrub travelling inland between Brisbane and Melbourne differ only gradually over a space of hundreds of miles, but these distinctions become visible to those used to them. (The colour of the sky and the effects of sunlight can be spectacular but the vegetation is largely dependent on the atmosphere for its broader effects). In contrast the landscapes of Kent seemed a riot of colour (I had no need to visit the Mediterranean for this). Turner had commented that ‘The skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe. A fine judge of atmospheric peculiarities, he wouldn’t have known that the particular conditions he observed had been caused by volcanic activities half a world away in the Indonesian archipelago. David Adam noted in the Guardian (October 1, 2007) that: ‘The eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia . . . threw out so much material that it triggered the notorious “year without a summer”, which caused widespread failure of harvests across Europe, resulting in famine and economic collapse . . . . Turner witnessed the effects of three [volcanic eruptions]: Tambora in 1815; Babuyan, Philippines in 1831, and Cosiguina, Nicaragua, in 1835. In each case the scientists found a sharp change in the red/green ratio of the sunsets he painted up to three years afterwards.’

Shortly after landfall in the UK I began writing the long poem that was eventually published as Crab & Winkle (Shearsman, 2009). I chose this slightly more obscure title after toying with ‘The Skies Over Thanet’ since it was both less and more specific (and since the book itself included journeys further afield: to Marrakesh and to Berlin). The title refers to a railway line that ran from Canterbury to Whitstable – in fact the first passenger line in steady use in England – but it also, I hope contains a more general sense of a wider area. The book was generally well received though my English friends found my grasp of things occasionally exotic. At the same time it was a book that an English poet probably wouldn’t have written. Behind it were works like Ronald Johnson’s early Book of the Green Man (another seasonal take on British landscapes) and, further back, Kenneth Rexroth’s acerbic long poem ‘The Dragon and the Unicorn’. Jonathan Williams was also in the mix (as were WG Sebald’s novels with their East Anglian setting).

Shifting from the southern to the northern hemisphere, from a warm-temperate-to-subtropical climate to a cool-temperate one didn’t consist simply of the flip of seasons plus overcoat. Certainly it was strange to inhabit a land where one’s old Christmas cards featuring snowy landscapes finally made sense but it was harder to adapt to a literary environment that had developed at a different pace from the one you came from. Certainly in the age of the web poetic histories can begin anywhere yet, as a person of a certain age, I had grown up writing in a world in which a ‘time-lag’ still existed. I was aware when I came to the UK that the battles I had been involved in and the rhetoric with which I had defended the works of myself and others might seem dated. My modernism was, maybe, the British modernism of the 1970s. I would perhaps appear quaint in my new milieu.  Postcolonial theory, imbibed when I taught Art History and Cultural Studies in Australia, fed my dissatisfactions while also suggesting that the seeming ‘third-hand’ nature of Antipodean modernism could contain revaluations that in themselves were innovative. The ‘time-lag’ wasn’t necessarily evidence of inferiority but might indicate that certain aesthetic problems were being dealt with at a different pace and at a different level. It’s difficult to say exactly how the ‘time-lag’ manifested itself though there was certainly a sense that battles still being fought in Australia were either finished with elsewhere or at least a stage or two further along. As an example the influence of American poets like Olson or O’Hara wasn’t apparent in Australia until the 1970s. By this time those who were interested in such things may have also stumbled on the work of British writers like Tom Raworth or JH Prynne who had picked up on these poets a decade earlier.

The presence in Australia of Kris Hemensley certainly made a difference; in his magazine An Ear In A Wheatfield contemporaneous work from all over the English-speaking world and beyond was present there and then. Poets from all places were treated as equals, something not apparent in New Poetry, the Australian modernist flagship of the time (this magazine would publish poems by Robert Duncan and others though it tended to print their work on special coloured paper). Still, all this ran against the tendency parochial literary scenes have in assuming that they invent everything themselves (and all places have their moments of parochialism and xenophobia). I witnessed this myself when my documentary poem The Ash Range was treated by some Australian reviewers as though it was a totally new thing. The influence of writers as diverse as William Carlos Williams and John Dos Passos might have been seen by these people as an aberration. Better would have been an acknowledgement of that influence and a discussion of whether the book added anything to it or not.

I don’t wish to make too much of ‘time-lag’. Of course there was correspondence. Early on even the bookshops weren’t averse to stocking unusual poetry books. At the end of the 1960s I found copies of several Fulcrum titles in a normally staid Melbourne store. I had never heard of Roy Fisher but here was a Collected Poems. I also picked up the first book by Barry MacSweeney, The Boy From the Green Cabaret Tells of his Mother, encouraged that someone only a year older than me had published a book (and had met Basil Bunting). Through the magazine Scripsi I came in contact with Gael Turnbull, and through events this magazine organised I met Christopher Logue (in Melbourne along with August Kleinzahler – they were an oddly compatible pair). When I visited the UK in 1987 and 1992 I made contact with these poets and, through them, met others, like Tony Baker and Harry Gilonis. It was Gael Turnbull who first got me published here.

‘Time-lag’ isn’t always just a one-way thing. Australia had its own version of the ‘poetry wars’: an ideological stand-off between two groups you could very broadly categorize as the ‘Sydney poets’ and the ‘Canberra poets’. The first group were interested in innovative writing, the second tended to be nationalist and conservative. Does this sound familiar? These antagonisms peaked in the 1980s, but although there are still some pockets of unresolved differences (such as the dispute over the recent anthology Australian Poetry Since 1788) there is not that lingering degree of bitterness that some poets in the UK have about events that occurred at the Poetry Society in the mid-70s. For the most part the Australians have moved on. Lines have been crossed on many occasions and previously unthinkable alliances have formed. Perhaps the Australians were cynical about the stand-off from the start, realizing that it related more to the desire to be represented than to any idealistic argument or aesthetic outcome. If so, my step was neither into the future nor into the past. It was more like changing trains for a different branch line.

In all, my migration was beneficial. I experienced certain paradoxes, in particular that in which the migrating author begins to receive closer attention back at ‘home’. I have also become aware that, though I have a number of enthusiastic readers this side of the equator I will never amount to an author of any importance here. I don’t feel this grudgingly: it’s just a fact. The same thing would occur with any writer migrating from the UK to another country. I may be just one of many people existing on a cusp where transnationalism and new media are beginning to make their mark. It’s certainly the case that younger poets in Australia no longer experience anything like a ‘time-lag’, a fact that must be at once exhilarating and terrifying.

Laurie Duggan was born in Melbourne in 1949. Since 2006 he has been living in East Kent and reading regularly at various pubs in London. His most recent books are Crab & Winkle, Exeter, Shearsman, 2009; The Epigrams of Martial (2nd ed), Boston, Pressed Wafer, 2010; Allotments [1-29], Wendell, Massachusetts, Fewer & Further, 2011; The Pursuit of Happiness, Bristol, Shearsman, 2012; and The Collected Blue Hills, Sydney, Puncher & Wattman 2012.

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