When I first wrote about prestressed concrete verse in 1969, and gave it a name, it was an act of faith. I had never seen such a thing, but I felt sure it must exist. My faith was boosted by the well-known words of the great and good St Anselm: "God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. That which exists is greater than that which is merely conceived. Therefore God exists." If the existence of God can be proved so simply and elegantly -- and I still find Anselm's argument indisputable -- then such a trifling whimsical thing as prestressed concrete verse must exist.
I have always dabbled in verse, usually of the lighter sort, but have never dared call it poetry. There may be poetry in it, but there is poetry in most things, and it is the poet's job to discover that, not mine. The poet's job is an awesome thing, not to be undertaken lightly. I am not sure that it can be undertaken at all, in a sense. I suspect rather that it is an involuntary thing, that poets are people who have been overtaken -- by what, and how, I don't know exactly, but I have been touched by it, have glimpsed its power, and know that I am not a poet. I write verse, but people like Shelton Lea and A.D. Hope write poetry, because they are poets. Introducing Alec Hope's recent book Chance Encounters, Peter Ryan recalls a bureaucrat who once tackled him with the question "Come now, Professor Hope -- what can poets actually do for Australia?" Hope replied: "They can justify its existence." That's too great a responsibility for me.
In saying that poetry is what poets write, as distinct from the stuff I write, I am not suggesting that everything they write is great poetry and if we can't see that it's because we lack their vision. Some poets can't write for nuts. Or as Patrick Kavanagh put it:
To be a poet and not know the trade,So being a poet is not enough: you have to work at the craft. Some poets work harder than others, some master the craft seemingly without effort, and some never master it at all. Whether the latter inevitably become saints I don't know; maybe it depends on their sex life.
Depending on your viewpoint, the whole matter of poetry can become very confusing or very liberating when you realize that it is quite possible, and quite normal, not to be a poet but to have some grasp of the craft. If Alec Hope writes a limerick, for example, it is poetry. If I write one, it's just a limerick. I'll write one to show you what I mean.
There once was a man named McCall,You see? The second line needs some work, but the whole thing scans and is in the traditional limerick form, and I wrote it while you waited. You may even have noticed that a variant of the last line was originally the second line, but the moment I introduced Anselm I knew it had to be the last. This is craft, sort of, but it isn't poetry. I trust that I have made my point: verse requires as much craft as poetry, and may be mistaken for poetry, but it is only poetry if a poet writes it.
In concrete poetry the visual form of the poem is used to convey meaning. Sometimes it is much more interesting to look at than to read, and sometimes it doesn't convey much meaning at all, but that is true of other kinds of poetry too. When I invented prestressed concrete verse (which from here on I will mostly refer to as PCV) I had in mind some kind of parody of concrete poetry, but it was a long time before I found the formwork for this parody, and when I did, PCV took on a life of its own.
Like verse, parody requires as much craft as poetry, and when a poet writes parody it is poetry. I am not very good at parody. I marvel at the wit and insight of those people who are good at it. The best parody I have written is my Australian Psalm 23, done for a competition in the Australian in 1982, a few months before "Big Mal" ceased to be Prime Minister.
Big Mal is my drover; I shall not whinge.In parody there is an element of manipulation and substitution. They are central to PCV. They are also central to "Coming Up For Blair" (written in late 1983 as an "ode to 1984"), which is part parody, part pastiche. It incorporates bits of Orwell (there are references to ten of his works), Eliot (a lot), Conrad (including a verbatim quote from Heart of Darkness), Beckett and Wilde, with nods in the direction of Tolkien, Apocalypse Now, science fiction fandom and the noble craft of proofreading.
In the early 1980s I started wondering whether I could devise a simple, inexpensive, effective method of regularly winning Tattslotto. At the time I didn't know anything about Tattslotto, but I couldn't help noticing that every week people seemed to win lots of money playing this game, and if they could do it, surely I could. I soon decided that it was a pretty hard game to win, even once, so I modified my plan: I would devise a simple, inexpensive and possibly effective method of fairly regularly winning modest amounts of money playing Tattslotto. As time went on the plan was modified so often, to the point where it became an inexpensive but highly efficient method of not winning anything much at all really, that I virtually gave up playing. Not entirely: I had isolated a phenomenon called "luck", which costs very little and has served me better than my clever schemes. And I did not give up playing with the numbers I first thought of: I have only given up betting on them. To this day I can happily occupy my idle moments playing games with the numbers in Tattslotto, Keno, Tatts 2, you name it -- even the basic arithmetic of horse-racing.
From this play with numbers came prestressed concrete verse. It is simply a matter of manipulating numbers in various ways, then substituting words or letters for the numbers. I won't bore you with the numbers or the way I manipulate them, except to say this: "Thirteen Forewords to the Gospel of St John" is based on thirteen numbers, for which I substituted thirteen words from the first few verses of the gospel. To give you some idea of the work involved, the choices to be made, in even a small PCV like this, consider that there are 24 ways of arranging four words, and 6,227,020,800 ways of arranging thirteen lines. I showed the "Thirteen Forewords" to the poet Les Murray, and he kindly said that the theology was sound.
"Gnomenclutter" is based on 31 numbers. I had my basic structure, 31 lines of six numbers, and the thought of a hexagon was in my mind: the word can mean "struggle of six" if you look at it the right way. All I needed was words to substitute for the numbers. It occurred to me that I might find 31 interesting words in James Joyce ("Our Hexag" now became the working title), so I started browsing through Anthony Burgess's Shorter Finnegans Wake. Even with Burgess's help I can't pretend to know what's going on, but on page 75 Isobel begins to answer "Question 10": "What bitter's love but yurning, what' sour lovemutch but a bref burning till shee that drawes dothe smoake retourne?" And towards the end of her answer (page 79) she says:
Aves Selvae Acquae Valles! And my waiting twenty classbirds, sitting on their stiles! Let me finger their eurhythmytic. And you'll see if I'm selfthought. They're all of them out to please. Wait! In the name of. And all the holly. And some the mistle and it Saint Yves. Hoost! Ahem! There's Ada, Bett, Celia, Delia, Ena, Fretta, Gilda, Hilda, Ita, Jess, Katy, Lou, (they make me cough as sure as I read them) Mina, Nippa, Opsy, Poll, Queenie, Ruth, Saucy, Trix, Una, Vela, Wanda, Xenia, Yva, Zulma, Phoebe, Thelma. And Mee!In his introduction Burgess explains the significance of 28 and 29 for Joyce (it's partly that he was born in February), and says "This provides Joyce with a bevy of girls . . . with a separable special girl who usually turns out to be Isobel". HCE's dream-wife, who is confused with Isobel, and in a symbolic triune way contains Isobel, is Anna Livia Plurabelle. So I have taken the 28 girls named by Isobel, and for "Mee" (Isobel) substituted ALP. From there to the title "Thirty-one Hexagonies of James Joyce" was a short step. Then I counted the letters in that title, and that's when the hard work started. When it was finished, feeling pleased with myself, I was looking again at page 79 in Burgess and noticed a lovely pun just six sentences on from the passage I have quoted: "But I'll plant them a poser for their nomanclatter" -- nomenclature in which there is no man-clatter, because they are all girls' names. I thought I would take that further, bringing in the Greek gnomen (thought, judgement, opinion) and pointing the obvious, that no men clutter the list of names. And that became the title. All this seems to have happened on 25 November 1984. On the following Saturday there was a federal election, and a few friends called in to watch the Anna Livia Plurality losing seats before our very eyes on television. I produced a copy of "Gnomenclutter", and Teresa Pitt was the only one who asked me what it meant, so I dedicated it to her.
I mentioned the arithmetic of horse-racing earlier. "720 Ways of Looking at Mozart" is based on every possible way that six horses can finish in a race, which is also every possible way of arranging the letters in the name Mozart. Gerald Murnane liked the idea of my "boxed hexafecta", so I gave it to him. In fact, in the printout I gave him I had substituted "Gerald" for "Mozart". He asked me if I could do one based on his whole name. I said I could not, there being six billion ways of arranging thirteen letters, but I offered him one of those, "Unread Mangler", and he seemed happy with that.
"720 Ways" was my first CAD-CAM (computer-assisted design and manufacture) PCV. My next was called "Voltaire Variations or Forty Thousand Things to Do with a Dead Philosopher". There are 40,320 ways of arranging the letters in the name Voltaire. I have done this, in the same format as the Mozart variations, and the work runs 80 pages. For this reason it remains unpublished -- except for the title page and two "stanzas", published by my friend Art Widner, of Anchor Bay, California. I have since dedicated it to him. The nicest thing in this curiosity of mechanized literature is the discovery that among the 40,319 anagrams of "Voltaire" is this: I love art.
Is prestressed concrete verse art? Or is it a very complicated way of idling away some of my spare time and cluttering up my computer? My provisional answer is: yes.
Tirra Lirra (Eva Windisch, ed.), Spring 1992