How to Use a Street Directory : Detail and Knowledge in the Work of Alan Wearne

How is it that we can find our way around a city if we think that every street, every suburb, looks the same? The devil, here as elsewhere, is in the detail. Poetry, among its many mansions, includes modes which can be most sensitive to detail and to the methodological problems that the registration of detail involves. Such problems have been central to the writing career of Alan Wearne. The significance of suburban life to his work is established in one of Wearne's first appearances in print, in Thomas Shapcott's anthology Australian Poetry Now of 1970. In a brief biographical entry above his three poems Wearne gives his place of origin and education as Blackburn South, followed by the comment, 'The South is important'. This is an unequivocal reminder of Wearne's sensitivity to the nuances of suburban location and, in a way, it challenges the reader and other poets to match it. In other words, it marks out a territory - the world of suburban differences - as being Wearne's own. What I want to argue here is that for Wearne suburbia is a place not only of thematic material but of a methodological enquiry about the way in which reality can be dealt with in poetry. Suburbia is a way of knowing not merely a way of life.

If we look back at his career from the present, one thing that is clearly noticeable is that it has a most unusual shape. On the surface, his poetic works become slower, longer and denser. It begins with a slim volume in 1972; followed four years later by a book, New Devil, New Parish, (which contains five short poems, a sequence, a dramatic monologue and then a fifty-five page 'verse novella', thus figuring this career in miniature); a massive verse novel of over 10,000 lines, The Nightmarkets, ten years later; and now, twelve years on, an even longer verse novel, The Lovemakers, which is two-thirds completed. This looks Joycean in its general shape and, while The Lovemakers may owe nothing whatever to Finnegans Wake, something of the same set of obsessions are being worked at in both careers. We could read Wearne's project as being the documentation of what one of the characters of The Nightmarkets, in a pointed allusion to Browning, calls 'this most fascinating thing in the worldÖ women and men'. All readers agree on Wearne's almost overwhelming sensitivity to individual detail. It is hard to think of an Australian poet or novelist who can be spoken of in the same breath in this respect. But the suburbs, in Wearne, are not only places of stories and lives, they are also examples of sophisticated grids on which the infinite detail of reality can be mapped. It is in suburbia that Wearne must face the paradox of empiricism. This paradox is, surely, the one embodied in Eliot's comment of James that he 'had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it': that is, the more sensitively detail is registered, the more impossible structuring generalisations become. For most of us there is a blurred crudity about our perception of detail that prevents us from being overwhelmed and enables an easy move into inductive generalisation. But, for a highly sensitive registering mind such as Weame's, there is a risk that understanding can become impossible. I want to show here the way in which Wearne uses a number of interpretive 'grids' to control and make sense of detail: one of them is a simple suburban map, another, corresponding to it, is a grid of football teams.

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Published 1 November 1998 in Writing the Everyday: Australian Literature and the Limits of Suburbia. Subjects: Poetic techniques, Suburbs.

Cite as: Duwell, Martin. ‘How to Use a Street Directory : Detail and Knowledge in the Work of Alan Wearne.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 18, no. 4, 1998. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.564e9a5a2f.