Australian poets are not immune to the appealing idea that the function of making poetry is a spiritual and emotional calling which supersedes all other priorities. Poetry has been identified as everything from the cutting edge of civilisation (Robert Fitzgerald called it "the knife-edge at the throat of darkness") to its saviour:
What do I seek? I seek the word
that shall become the deed of might
whereby the sullen gulfs are stirr’d
and stars begotten on their night
(Christopher Brennan, from ‘The Twilight of Disquietude’)
When poetry withers within us, the greater part of experience and reality wither too; and when this happens, we live in a desolate world of facts, not of truth — a world scarcely worth the trouble of living in.
(Judith Wright, from her introduction to Selected Poems, 1963: vi)
Critics and poets alike have identified the primary roles of the poet as engaging with both imagination and language, with other thematic concerns performing lesser functions.
The main function of poets is to take the seeds of things into their minds and let them grow and flower.
(Hope, 1974: 17)
Poets are men and women who tap the living energy of the language as they find it in their own time and place… This is the function of poetry: to be a living organ of language.
(Hall, 1981: 7)
Within this context, however, significant numbers of poets have chosen to make use of this calling by representing particular broad political, religious or philosophical points of view. For many, attempting to find ways in which to describe the country’s landscape was a calling in itself. For others, it was part of a broader political approach to ecology, nationalism, economics or Aboriginal land rights.
Some poets have little stated interest in the exploration of Australian landscape themes. Webb, Hope, Brennan and Beaver are examples of writers who might use literal or metaphorical landscapes along with other imagery in their poems, but whose chief aim is something other than that identification of a national identity or topography with which so many others were primarily concerned. "I’m afraid I’m very unpatriotic," said Christopher Brennan in 1909. "I’ve written nothing about the horse or the swagman. As far as ‘national’ traits go, I might have made my verse in China." (McAuley, 1975: 47)
However, the landscape is quite often used indirectly as a metaphor for spiritual exploration, so that the history of Australian poetry comes to be described in such terms as a "poetic topography" (Murray, 1991: xxi), or "the country of the mind" (Wright, 1965: xxii) and, indeed, by Elliott, as a "landscape" of its own. A.D. Hope, whose own poetry was far from enthusiastic about the Australian landscape, made extensive use of the metaphor in both his famous exchange with Judith Wright (published in Native Companions, 1974) and his introductory thoughts on the nature of poetry in The Cave and the Spring (1965), which were entitled ‘The Discursive Mode: Reflections on the ecology of poetry’ and made free use of landscape (and particularly desert landscape) metaphors.
Developing concurrently with the construction of the Australian character in the landscape is the belief that white poets cannot adequately describe this landscape, but that they should aim to do so.
It is like a Holy Grail quest. At least part of the excitement surrounding the process is the elusiveness of its end. The search itself has taken the developing Australian literature into spiritual and metaphorical places its initiators would never have envisaged. The centrality of the quest has also obscured other concerns, and other themes, and has been used as a metaphor for the identification or development of a national cultural identity.
Judith Wright claimed in 1965 that this was indeed the major preoccupation of Australian poets. She began her ground-breaking examination of the issue with the statement:
It is only necessary to look at Australia’s literature, in order to see that for very many of her writers she has presented herself as the most difficult of technical problems. Before one’s country can become an accepted background against which the poet’s and novelist’s imagination can move unhindered, it must first be observed, understood, described, and as it were absorbed. The writer must be at peace with his landscape before he can turn confidently to its human figures.
But in Australian writing the landscape has, it almost seems, its own life, hostile to its human inhabitants; it forces its way into the foreground, it takes up an immense amount of room, or sometimes it is so firmly pushed away that its obvious absence haunts us as much as its presence could do. (1965: xi)
This literary quest for understanding the landscape has become a subject of study itself. Much past and present Australian literary criticism is focused on the central theme of landscape as a preoccupation, whether cloaked in nationalist, environmental, post-colonial or trendy urban post-modern rhetoric.
Presumably, once the perfect Australian landscape poetic is painstakingly developed, the national character will be complete and the land will be understood. Yet Hope identified the essential pointlessness of this as a conscious pursuit, in his discussion of the search for the Great Australian Novel, and voiced his hope that one day, landscape would feature simply as the cyclorama before which the drama of the nation was acted out:
…the delusion came in when they tried to achieve this end by writing about the country, about Australia and the people who live in it. No great English novelist and no great Russian novelist ever wrote about England or about Russia. They wrote about people — not people as Englishmen or people as Russians, but people as individuals. It is hard to think of Jane Austen worrying herself as to whether her characters were recognizably or typically English, or feeling she had to put in a lot of painstaking description of English scenery so that the atmosphere would be unmistakably English. (Hope, 1974: 239)