Lionel Fogarty's "Tired of Writing"

Tired of Writing
Yoogum yoogum
stack level too deep
By Claire Nashar on February 2013

There’s no denying that on a first reading Lionel Fogarty's poetry can be an uncomfortable experience. His poems might initially seem "ungrammatical", littered with what might be considered grammatical "errors", "anomalies" and "inconsistencies". Yet this only remains true if we persist in reading Fogarty through the prism of standard English grammar, if we impose our way of reading upon his way of writing. If, on the other hand, we approach his poetry as written in deliberately broken English, in a language which intentionally disrupts standard English grammar, we might come to see that part of Fogarty’s aim is in fact to break English and the powerful position it holds as our nation's official language.

While it can’t be contested that the bulk of Fogarty's poetic vocabulary is drawn from English, the syntactical, grammatical and thematic structures of his poetry reflect those of certain Indigenous languages.* The result is a language which is inescapably, and even primarily Indigenous. It is English Aboriginal, rather than Aboriginal English. By inverting the power dynamic between English (the language of settlement) and Indigenous Australian languages, Fogarty demonstrates language’s potential to be an instrument of liberation as well as a means of oppression – that it offers the possibility of a way of writing premised on active (and at times violent) resistance to subjugation.

"Tired of Writing" can be read as a kind of ars poetica. "Sometimes me write bad/ just to be glad", Fogarty admits, the majority of the poem being written in language which resists and problematizes traditional ways of reading English. The last six lines, however, are written in technically perfect grammar: "To write I have to use/ a medium/ that is not mine./ If I don’t succeed, bear with me./ I see words beyond any acceptable meaning/ And this is how I express my dreaming". These lines emphasise that the poem's earlier, unconventional grammar is not accidental, but a deliberate tactic on the poet's part. They also encourage us to reconsider what might, on first reading, have been dismissed as "slippages" or "errors" in the poem's language, and in doing so to discover how such instances might strain "beyond any acceptable meaning".

To pick but one example, the line "I see it is a putting something/ from nothing, that's my practice" is easily "corrected" to read "pulling something from nothing" – as the English idiom would normally go. And yet Fogarty has written "putting" not "pulling". The subversion supplants an act of taking away (pulling) with an act of placing or giving (putting), and from that point alone can be extrapolated all kinds of readings. "Pulling something from nothing", for instance, might be another way of rewording the doctrine of settlement by terra nullius, upon which Australia's colonisation was legally premised, in which case "putting something from nothing" (an opposite act) might be read as a counter gesture, an act of de-colonisation. But this is only one of many possible readings. The point is that Fogarty is working within the English language – in this case by exploiting the aural and visual similarities between two English words – to undermine its suppression of Indigenous languages, a suppression which is a metonymy for the broader impact of colonial culture upon Indigenous culture.

* Mudrooroo,“The Poetry of Lionel Fogarty,” Indigenous Literature of Australia (Hyland House), 79-88.