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Tony Burke versus the invisible worm


Rose with a worm in it, artistic depiction of Blake's 'The Sick Rose'Upon being appointed to the federal Arts portfolio, Labor frontbencher Tony Burke confessed a love for poetry, saying he reads it every day. That's good, since his responsibilities as Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities as well as Arts, read like a post-modernist poem in themselves.

To be seduced by both policy and poetry might seem like a contradiction. But it doesn't have to be.

Buddhist poet Daisaku Ikeda described poetry as an attitude of the heart, an openness to the world, a vital sense of the connection between one's life and the life within all things. The 'poetic spirit', he says, is the impulse, the vibrancy, at the core of all artistic expression.

If poetry is the pulse of our cultural life, so too can it be seen as the pulse of our public decisions.

Take the environment, where every decision has a ripple effect on society. Emotions are roused, disappointments dealt with or suffered, heat generated, satisfaction is (rarely) reached. This, or somewhere within it, is the poem.

Our poetry loving Minister for the Environment pleases some clearly identifiable groups by declining to proclaim heritage protection for anything but a tiny percentage of the Tarkine Wilderness area in Tasmania.

Trade Unions cheer, local mayors count the coming influx of workers (and municipal rates), miners gear up to rip the guts out of the forests for minerals, loggers fall asleep counting crashing trees, and the people who have marvelled at rain forest and mountain are left in deep mourning.

The poetry of the wilderness will be gone, the mourners say. The poem is all around us, they say; its core is the beauty of the wilderness. The canker, the 'invisible worm' (as in Blake's poem 'The Sick Rose') that a core of beauty seems to inevitably contain, is the minister's decision to leave the wilderness vulnerable.

Those who fight for heritage recognition of the whole Tarkine area will see Burke's decision as akin to the last two lines of a Shakespeare sonnet:

This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave e're long.

And Burke, what poem swirls in his sub-conscious? This, perhaps, from T. S. Eliot (who incidentally is one of Burke's favourites)?

Shall I part my hair behind, do I dare to eat a peach?

No, like Eliot's Prufrock, he didn't dare:

No, I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord ...

Attendant, say his opponents, on the mining companies, on the trade unions, on the argument that mining means progress, that jobs, even short-term, outweigh environmental values.

Burke, on the other hand, might look to W. B. Yeats and say:

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone.

For him the poem is in the balancing of needs, the judicious allocation rather than the romantic impulse.

Poets can, helplessly, write their summations when it is all over, or people can see themselves as poets making the words now as they campaign and fight. The people become the poetry — if passionate people don't write it, someone else will.

Those who know that 'earth hath not anything to show more fair' (Wordsworth — ironically, writing about a city) would want to be able to say so in 50 years, and for the poetry to still be saying so in 100 years, in 1000.

And it doesn't have to be a dramatic poem. The policy developed for the Murray Darling Basin makes, on one level, a rural poem about husbandry, a poem that carries its warning too about exploitation.

It's a John O'Brien 'we'll all be rooned' poem if you look at it from said Hanrahan's point of view entirely, but the best of poetry has multiple points of view and, anyway, Hanrahan was wrong.

Like many policy decisions this one can become a 'dialogue of self and soul' (Yeats) where self is the land-user and soul is the need of the land and its lifeblood, the rivers. Not to mention another set of needs downstream.

Compromise may be the 'perfection of mediocrity' but it is also inevitably at the core of policy decisions. Too much water for the farmer to lose is not enough for the river system to gain. At times it can seem like a nonsense poem, like Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky writ large.

The Great Barrier Reef too is a poem in progress, again with a core of beauty and again with a conflict created (or potentially created) by public decisions. These decisions potentially include the proliferation of mining ports along the Queensland coast, to the inevitable detriment of the Reef.

As Gerard Manley Hopkins said: 'there lives the dearest freshness deep down things', but perhaps his optimism for a new dawn is harder to hold now, when the destruction caused by some public decisions seems so much more drastic than the mere 'ooze of oil' in Hopkins' day.

The 'ooze of oil' is nothing to the dredging of harbours, the detritus of mining pumped into the waters of the reef and the shipping of uranium through the reef's waters.

The environmentalists will hope Burke will find inspiration from Keats, another of his favourites:

A thing of beauty is a joy forever
Its lovliness increases, it will never
Pass into nothingness ...

and that a policy decision will be made which will be pure poetry to most Australians.

Barry Breen headshotBarry Breen is currently poet-in-residence at the Ballarat Art Gallery. He has published two collections of poetry, three of short stories and, with Lorna Hannan, five anthologies of poetry for schools. He has received an Arts Council Senior Literary Fellowship and various prizes for poetry, short stories, children's stories and acting. 

Topic tags: Barry Breen, Tony Burke, poetry, Murray Darling Basin, Tarkine, Great Barrier Reef



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Existing comments

It does seem like Tony Burke's love of poetry has not resulted in a corresponding reverence for the environment, his ministerial portfolio. I've visited the Tarkine wilderness area in Tasmania and can only offer this advice to Minister Burke: "The worst tragedy for a poet is to be admired through being misunderstood." Jean Cocteau

Pam | 09 April 2013  

Barry, what a tour de force! When they've finished logging Tasmania 'Annihilating all that's made', perhaps we'll be left, in the gnomic phrase from Andrew Marvell's 'The Garden', with 'a green thought in a green shade?' Though I think that his point is that that would disappear along with the trees! I'd love to play more but I gotta go. Where are yo Philip Harvey?

Joe Castley | 10 April 2013  

Thank you for sharing this beautiful and heartbreaking piece of writing. Every word resonates, more deeply today as I finish a submission on the Qld Premier Campbell Newman's latest assault on our precious native vegetation. He has heralded in a new regime of land clearing and the hearts of environmentalists are broken. Do not look for poetry in his stony black heart, for there is none. I continue to hope though that Burke's finer sensitivities will rise to the occasion, though he has an unpoetic cabinet to persuade.Even his most aspirational policy proposals can be outvoted by his colleagues.

Rose Adams | 10 April 2013  

Nice work. All of us, though - politicians especially - should remember TS Eliot's lines in 'Little Gidding' warning of '...the shame Of things ill done and done to others' harm Which once you took for exercise of virtue. Then fools' approval stings, and honour stains.'

Gordon Kerry | 10 April 2013  

Well done Barry; even I who don't dig poetry liked it. Many years ago you went and saw Lake Pedder before it was destroyed. I went to the Tarkine a few years ago, and I just hope your piece will contribute in a small way to its being saved from going the way of Pedder.

Gavan | 10 April 2013  

This won't be the last of my renditions, As I never cease to be disappointed by major party politicians. Some people even think we have democracy, But our pollies are bought and bribed, you see. Thankfully the Greens do take an ethical stand, Will they ever have the numbers to save this land? That depends on how many of us can see What environmental disastrous the major parties decree! We've got Premier Newman devastating Queensland. Do we really want Tony Abbot cruelling the rest of this land? At least Labor joined the Greens with a carbon tax, As for Abbot's 'direct action'. How terribly pathetic! How shockingly lax! We're heading for a 4.5 degree temperature rise by the turn of the century, And the extinction of many more species. Oh dear me! Can't you see?

Grant Allen | 10 April 2013