To be a poet one needs the six P’s – the pencil, the paper, the perception, the passion, the persistence and the unshakable persuasion that the poem is in fact possible and attainable. - Grace Perry

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Writing the Sacred

The day begun with an Acknowledgement of Country by Aunty Ruth Bryant, who also tickled our taste buds with a poem of hers.
The event organisers Michael Griffith and Elaine Lindsay in their introduction to the day flagged Francis Webb as one of Australia's best place-based writers. Webb explores the sacred through the representations of 'nature' in his literature. They also mentioned Richard Kearney's research on the imagination, and how it is through the imagination that we access religious truths (throughout the conference it was stressed that religious and the sacred in literature can be interpreted as Religion or religious with a little 'r', a connectedness to something greater-than-human). Now I believe that it was Michael Griffith's who said the following, but please forgive me if I have mixed up my notes, by living the experience through literature, or by being immersed into the story, we understand the experience and the act of living.
" hand gently on a small tree and feel the happy quiver of a bird in full song" - Helen Keller

James Tulip referred to David Malouf as a 'fictionalising essayist'. Tulip believes that Malouf's voice comes through in his narratives, articulating his theoretical and theological ideology. Tulip flagged the following excerpt from The Great World as an example of this:
There was a third speaker, a man from the university who had written on Hugh Warrender and came here, as a good many of the mourners did, as a sharer in his public life, though public, as he pointed out, was the wrong word for something which, in the case of each one of them, and in the poet's case too, was so hidden that if one was to be true to the spirit of it, it could be referred to only in terms that were tentative and indirect.

He was speaking of poetry itself, of the hidden part it played in their lives, especially here in Australia, though it was common enough- that was the whole point of it - and of their embarrassment when it had, as now, to be brought into the light. How it spoke up, not always in the plainest terms, since that wasn't always possible, but in precise ones just the same, for what is deeply felt and might otherwise go unrecorded: all those unique and repeatable events, the little sacraments of daily existence, movements of the heart and intimations of the close but inexpressible grandeur and terror of things, that is our other history, the one that goes on, in a quiet way, under the noise and chatter of events and is the major part of what happens each day in the life of the planet, and has been from the very beginning. To find words for that; to make glow with significance what is usually unseen, and unspoken too - that, when it occurs, is what binds us all, since it speaks immediately out of the centre of each one of us; giving shape to what we too have experienced and did not till then have words for, though as soon as they are spoken we know them as our own.
Jeannette Siebols' Love poem II, 2009 
image sourced from Liverpool Street Gallery
Tulip told us that within these paragraphs Malouf's ideas about poetry and religion are explored.

After a delicious morning tea of warm apple pastries David Malouf, James Tulip and Michael Griffith sat down for a discussion about 'presence and metaphor as a way of releasing the sacred in David Malouf's work'. Insightfully, Malouf said that "prayer is a form of paying absolute attention to the world". He commented that he "doesn't want to put the sacred outside this world and all its objects". I liked Malouf's position on the sacred as within this world, as it correlates with my own beliefs. I like to look for majestic and spiritual experiences in the everyday. Malouf said that his characters "pay attention to the world around them, seeing themselves in it and the world within themselves, and in this way they find their own presence". Malouf gave this line out of Ransom as an example of this: "He indicated to the man that he should sit, then sat very contentedly himself, letting the goodness of the cool clean water extend its reviving benefit from his feet to his whole being". A member of the audience pointed out that such an attention to connectedness found in Christianity has been influenced by Zen Buddhism theories of mindfulness and mediation practices.

I think it was Michael Griffith who said that there are two kinds of prayer: 1) intercession and 2) thanks for what is there. It was also mentioned that Ruth Burrows once asked "is connectedness to the universe an experience of God?". Griffith, Malouf and Tulip agreed that it is a question of semantics, that God and the sacred can be found in the natural world if the signifiers are clear.
Sacredness is for everyone - Paul Valery
Jeannette Siebols' Orpheus, 2009
image sourced from Liverpool Street Gallery
Jeannette Siebols, six times finalist in the Blake Prize, presented on her artworks. I was unsure if I liked her Tower of Bable at first, but on seeing more of her pieces I felt that I better understood her work. I then gave Tower of Bable a bit more time, allowing myself to take in the complexities of the image. Siebols' exploration of the aesthetics of written text is very interesting and her use of texture, colour and whiteness is enchanting. I recommend looking her artworks up and can't wait to catch an exhibition to experience the spirit of her paintings.
"How shall a poor man sing. When all the birds compete?" - John Shaw Neilson

The McGlade Gallery at the Australian Catholic University in Strathfield is currently hosting the exhibition 'Halo and the Glory of Art'. This exhibition is worth catching, there are some very interesting pieces. I was particularly drawn to Julian Martin's piece Not titled (Black shape on white). Peter Fay launched the exhibition and made some interesting comments on the labelling of artworks. Fay desires labels to be removed from artworks so that gallery visitor's viewings of pieces are not influenced by artist's names, the titles of the works or the mediums the works have been constructed with. Thus, works are equalised, as visitors won't skip over pieces that are by an artist unknown, to invest more time on known artist's works. This also allows the initial response to an artwork to be more individualised for the viewer of the piece. Fay would like to see the names, titles and mediums of the works to be published in a catalogue, which can be collected on entering the gallery.

"But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease". - Helen Keller

After a lunch of fresh Turkish bread, salad and cold meat sandwiches Toby Davidson presented on '"Dragon-flies Draw Flame": Francis Webb at Galston'. Davidson claimed that Webb selects words from the landscape, instead of laying language over the land Webb writes the language of the place. Davidson recommended Webb's poem 'The Black Cockatoos' for anyone interested in entering into the world of Francis Webb.
"Bird song is reverberating touch" - Andrew Sand

Jeannette Siebols' Love letter viii, 2009
image sourced from Liverpool Street Gallery
Barry Spurr discussed the 'sacredness of place in T S Eliot's Four Quartets'. Spurr noted that modernists have been considered anti-Romantic, but this opinion has changed as the continuity of Romantic sensibilities, particularly ideas around the sacred and 'nature', can be seen in much modernist literature. As Spurr asserted the concept of the sacred in place is thoroughly Romantic.

Robert Adamson read a selection of his poems. It is such a pleasure to hear Adamson's poetry. He has an amazing nack for constructing original and beautiful imagery. Toby Davidson also read one of his poems and I am now eagerly awaiting the release of his first book of poetry later this year.

The day ended with most of the speakers and the audience reflecting on the days talks and the theme 'writing the sacred'. The most noteworthy points that came out of this were as follows:
  • Connection with landscape enables a clarity and sense of immediacy.
  • A deep presence in landscape leads to an experience of sacredness.
  • An epiphany of the natural world requires a close attention to place.
  • Through an epiphany of the natural world an appreciation of the act of creation will be found, as we find a deeper connection with the significance of natural events.
  • The world enlivens a theological idea.
  • Light and darkness is seen in the world because of the ways that writers have previously written about these things.
  • Theories of limitlessness view the sacred as unmeasurable.
  • To read country is to understand the layers of Indigenous sacred meaning.
  • Charles Harper writes of Australian birds which are now extinct, capturing the nature of these birds in a way that will never be able to be repeated.
  • The sacred is in the connection.
  • "Birds are the closest things to angels" - Robert Adamson.
  • "As Orpheus discovered, there are no birds in hades" - Robert Adamson.
  • Religion and the desire for the sacred is a valid and basic expression of the human spirit.
  • Robert Grey finds the sacred in the absolutely ordinary.
  • The sacred as it is expressed in the arts can be free from dogma.


  1. Thanks for such a detailed report on the day, Rhiannon. I was there, and reading your report I was there again.