This morning Ivor Indyk is giving a talk on Provincialism and Encyclopaedism, with Les Murray as his prime example, so I go out to the Uni to hear it. It’s a forty minute drive, I always have trouble finding my way out there (among the buildings I mean) and I get to 3.G.55 just as he’s being introduced. I pour myself a cup of coffee, take a piece of chocolate mud cake and a spare chair and place it at the back next to Chris, amongst much else the translator of Bolaño. Ivor doesn’t stand, he sits at a table and reads his paper, but it’s a compelling performance anyway – he’s very much at ease and quite capable of digressing then, without confusion or stress, returning to his argument . . . which is:
As a term, provincialism invariably gets a bad press. It is associated in most people’s minds with narrow-mindedness, ignorance, belatedness and even foolishness. But there is one quality which is characteristic of the provincial, which is undeniably positive – this is the capacity for wonder. Wonder is an expansive emotion – it sees the detail in its amplitude, and a world in the detail, so that everything is implicit in the one thing, and that one thing, however remote, offers access to all things. Les Murray, the ‘subhuman redneck’ poet, is the most avowedly provincial poet in contemporary Australian literature. His poetry exhibits this expansive quality to an encyclopaedic extreme. This paper considers the relation between provincialism and encyclopaedism in his writing, to the point where it reaches the very edge of things, and still seeks to imagine beyond.
As he explains in his intro, Ivor’s been exploring certain qualities that are characteristic of or in our literature – awkwardness, shyness, self-consciousness – in such a way as to discover their positive attributes within their mainly negative construction. He’s chosen provincialism above localism or regionalism because, not in spite of, its negative connotations; and wants to show how, in Big Les’s hands, the inhabitation of a spot that is not the metropolis but a kind of antipodes to it, opens up various qualities and strategies: the capacity for wonder is one of the provincial virtues, he says; as is the encyclopedic instinct – the catalogue as a means by which such wonder might be expressed. In general terms, he suggests, as Les enacts his provincial self, his bumpkin clowning, his knowing fool-ish-ness, his elemental wonder, he at the same time asserts that there is nothing intrinsically outside his purview, nothing he cannot, at least in principle, incorporate into himself.
Or at least that’s how I understand what he was saying. I was fully persuaded, just as I was, last year, when he explored awkwardness as a quality in Patrick White’s novels. It’s strange, today, to hear the sophisticated, urban intellectual give such a sympathetic account of the work of the self-described sub-human redneck and, in question time, you can hear the bewilderment of some of the members of the audience as they attempt to find a chink in the argument that will let them reclaim primacy for the metropolis they feel they represent. No chance. Ivor’s quick on his mental feet, has a sharp mind and also the confidence that comes from a well-founded argument. To be a dweller in an antipodean city, he says, to attend an Australian university, is not necessarily to live beyond the bounds of the provincial.
I always go through a complex debate in my head at these things – it’s natural for me to want to add my bit to the discussion; on the other hand, I usually feel like I’m some kind of interloper here: not so much a bumpkin perhaps as a denizen of the streets, with a whiff of the disreputable about me. Last time I was out here, listening to Gail Jones talk about Walter Benjamin and Lola Rudge, when I opened my mouth in question time everyone in the room turned as one in their seats to see who that anomalous voice belonged to . . . so I restrain myself while the clever people talk of Deleuze and Derrida and whatnot; but when Eileen Chung mentions she first encountered Les Murray in a cinema in Singapore, as the voice over for an advertisement designed to entice tourists to Australia, I have to speak.
I say that the problem for me in reading Les Murray is the way you feel you have to climb inside that gargantuan body, that massive egg head, and see the world through his eyes; the way you have to become the ghost in his machine, the actor pulling the strings of his marionette . . . that’s just an observation though, my question, arising from Eileen’s anecdote, is: At what point does provincialism morph into nationalism? There’s a palpable pause, a shift in the room. Ivor says he doesn’t know – perhaps I have something more to say about it? I say that Les is more likely to declare Bunyah an independent republic than he is to espouse more traditional forms of nationalism and Ivor responds by remarking that Les did in fact join the New England separatist movement when it was active a few years ago.
Afterwards I have a chat with the HoD about a seminar he’s suggested I might want to organise for later in the year – my other purpose in coming out here – and then, after telling Eileen I can’t come to the Poem of the Month that she’s presenting – Philip Levine’s ‘The Mercy’ – slip away. It’s a feeling not unlike the one I get when I finish a taxi shift . . . free at last. Or, in the opening words of Joseph Furphy’s Such is Life – which Ivor quoted in his talk – unemployed at last. As if idleness were my natural state. Which it probably is . . . an obsessive, wondering, delighted, delightful, provincial idleness. I’ll give the rest of the day over to that.