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DIVERSIONS AND DIVISIONS
William Oxley


Published in Australia but written by a New Zealander, Stephen Oliver’s Ballads, Satire & Salt* is subtitled ‘A Book of Diversions’. It is an intriguing collection of verses for at least two reasons. Firstly - and this I think has been universal in the poetry world for many years now - because it contains satire, and satire is firmly off the agenda. Secondly, it may be taken as a sign of the coming-of-age of an independent antipodean poetry. Briefly, let me deal with the first of the two points because all I need to do is rehearse a few familiar modern arguments against satire and leave it at that.

Great satirists - Swift, Pope, Voltaire, etc. - besides being relatively few in number, have always placed truth above everything, including people’s sensitivities. Great satirists are martyrs for the truth - a species of fanatics driven by a saeve indignatio - but martyrs are not numerous, especially for the truth. Which means, of course, that there will never be all that many satirists around. ‘And a good thing too!’ will cry the innumerable tyrants of the Army of Liberals who deplore the consistent right and exercise of free speech. So that, today, satire is not encouraged because not only will it disturb the ethos of the Nanny State and the Capitalist-fed Culture of Comfort, but it will show that PC, or political correctness, is really a disguise for that far older impulse: persecution continues.

Of course, it is true that, even in the hands of its greatest practitioners, satire, qua ars, will never attain ‘the highest level of invention’ simply because, however justified, it remains reactionary: its primum mobile negative. Satire cannot be ‘of the greatest art’ because it responds critically to things, and is non-celebratory. Even so, for the survival of a truly healthy culture, satire is a vital component. Satire is divisive - as well as diverting, as Stephen Oliver thinks - because however it ‘sugars the pill’ with humour, as Swift said, it seeks to divide the bad from the good. Like surgery it wounds and cuts to make healthy; and to that end (of health) it is divisive, discriminatory and, of course, painful. But, as I have said, we live in a culture of comfort and everything pain-causing is hated. Consequently, modern society protects itself - as far as possible - from the pain caused by satire (that is, by truth-telling) by an ever more elaborate system of taboos and shibboleths (hence political correctness). But consider this final thought, before I move to consider Stephen Oliver’s book, its weight and significance: freedom is the essential ground of being to produce good art. But what ‘freedom’ exactly? The freedom to think the unthinkable. And it is this freedom that satire considers de rigeur, even to its own humbler requirements than those needed to give the world a Sophocles or a Shakespeare.

My second point about satire as a sign of cultural maturity needs only the briefest of thought: though its ramifications, especially historically, could be examined at far greater length. It seems to me, however, an unarguable fact of growth that only when a society, like an individual, begins to become self-critical is cultural maturity possible. This happened in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries - to judge from everything from the rise of the Enclyclopaedists and philosophes in France, to the sudden emergence of a battery of fine satirists in Britain and France especially. Likewise, Propertius and Aristophanes were representatives of ‘points of maturity’ in the development of Roman and Greek civilization respectively.

Stephen Oliver handles well traditional forms from ballads, which are songs telling a story, or ballades - an Old French verse form of eight-line stanzas with envoi; to villanelles which are 19 lines long using a degree of repetition in which two lines are sort of developed refrains. He is skilful and obviously well-read in all the poets from Chaucer to Auden. Concerning which latter, Oliver’s ‘Ballad of Miss Goodbar’ has affinities with ‘Miss Gee: a Ballad’, although the notes to the book refer only to Lawrence Durrell’s ‘A Ballad of the Good Lord Nelson’ and one by the New Zealand poet James K. Baxter. Likewise there is ‘Sydney Bells’ ‘a passing tribute to one of the more endearing examples of the nonsense poetry genre “London Bells”’; and, interestingly, Oliver claims affinities also with Idris Davies’s ‘Gwalia Deserta’ which, as it is many years since I read Davies, I am delighted to see the miners’ poet of Old South Wales alive and still hacking it in New South Wales.

However, I’m not actually here to review Stephen Oliver’s book, so much as to set it in some sort of context - satiric, social, whatever - but it is worth pointing out that, as the blurb says, he is ‘lively and technically impressive’, though as a satirist he is relatively light and unsavage. At his satiric best are lines like:

              To each appetite its daily ration
              Of sex, beauty, youth and a touch of gore,
              The nun, the mutant, the sex-slave Martian,
              More lies please, it’s the truth I abhor.

That’s from ‘Ballad of a Glossy’ (inspired by G.K Chesterton’s against The Illustrated London News) directed at readers of the Australian Women’s Weekly. It could, of course, be taken as a send-up of any tabloid and most weeklies in the U.K. - except perhaps the satirical journal Private Eye
.

The book is full of interesting insights and observations but, of course, as the satirist’s is the most conscious art of all, though Oliver may divert us with,

              Television is our hearth-fire
              (As memory it is said)
              And cars like wolves sneaky at night
              Are visitors from the dead.

He has to conclude,

              Every image that you’ve thought
              Lived before you thought it through,
              Freud is the sun and Jung the moon
              Yet the reverse may be true.

In other words, Oliver doesn’t think the artist can ‘think the unthinkable’ (ie. be original) and so contents himself with satire - the most self-conscious of arts. Which I will here define as mud that sticks -
and leave it at that.

*(Ballads, Satire & Salt
, Stephen Oliver, Greywacke Press, PO Box 179, Habersfield, Sydney NSW 2045, Australia. 85pp.; AU$18.95; NZ$19.95.)


              © William Oxley 2003