We at the Kurilpa Poets are proud to reprint our Easter feature-poet, Gerald Keaney’s, thought-provoking review of our February feature poet, David Hallett. Sadly there is little critical analysis on the current Performance Poetry scene and so we welcome this opportunity to get the ball rolling. More of Gerry’s work can be found at http://geraldkeaney.bravesites.com/

Gerald K at Kurilpa poets

Remarks on a David Hallett reading


North coast of NSW performance poet David Hallett’s reading on Monday 29/4/2013 in Brisbane was slick in a thought-out rather than sterile way, passionate, engaging and a suitable length. Nevertheless I have a couple of remarks. It is interesting to note that having shared the ideas below with Hallett, he refused any comment on the issues, instead returning a garbled nonsensical email. Performance poetry today at best aspires to a professionalism of presentation. Ideas aren’t so important and certainly not worth defending. What would Byron have thought? And indeed, what do they think in Byron?

There are a number of fairly standard topics in Australian performance poetry, each commanding its own few approaches. The bread and butter of most poetry readings is didactic. It’s a kind of soft-left preaching which gives the left-orientated audience a feel-good buzz. It can be informative, and even engaging, but usually it is not. Usually it is preachy and sanctimonious. No one is asked to think for themselves.

An issue with it that came up for me in Hallett’s reading involved the tension in his performance around didactic moralism. His first piece described the various ills of capitalism, which is not necessarily a bad thing to do, but it came across as moralistic. This impression was enhanced by a religious reference. To quote another poem he recited later in the night, “God has left the auditorium.”

As far as I am concerned good riddance. This is of course my position on faith, and others are entitled to their’s. One difficulty with moralism is that morals are similar. Others may not share your moral intuitions. Even if they do we must ask what that means. Moral imperatives are generally a kind of list of how NOT to behave to be successful in business.

And this how they are used. People nod and pay lip service. Then, next day, they consider themselves sinners in the office: to pay the bills they help organize a deal involving a sweat shop. The tough old world goes on. A better critique pointing at a better life is urgently needed, “tut tut tut,” is not enough.

wordsmith David Hallett demurs

wordsmith David Hallett demurs

The anti-business content of Hallett’s performance is of course spot-on. The current economic order does demand ruthless competition and exploitation. Again the answer is not moral; Gina Reinhart, one of Hallett’s targets, is not evil. She is a functionary of a capitalist economy, not Satan.

If the malaise seems to be at root a spiritual, this may in part be because as Hallett’s laudible try at sci fi poetry midway through his reading proved, economic exploitation can be imagined on an interstellar/cosmic level. Despite this, what would replace the existing economic system in its entirety is down to earth and very material. It is by struggling against closed-minded and entrenched ways of living, and for a more rational ways to co-operate productively.

As game theory can tell you, we do not need morals to cooperate better, only a more enlightened self-interest. In this struggle greed (bemoaned by Hallett) can actually be desirable: greed for fresh air, beautiful evocative cities, all the things we could have if people were reason we produced, not the accumulation of value.

My favourite of Hallett’s poems last night was about lies. One odd thing about the truth – it also is not a moral issue. In fact truth-seeking since Aristotle has been about putting prejudices aside and getting at the root of the matter, moral prejudices included. When we do this we find the very things Hallett regaled us with: obscured facts about destruction, exploitation, inhumanity. Indeed we find violence against truth itself. This can only lead us to ask, and a performance poet is well placed to do so, can we not communicate better? Again the question is raised of how we can work together productively.

Not made in China yet… This poem of Hallett’s was a nice comment on the colonization of creativity and life by commerce. Hallett’s very presence as a performer, enthusiastic and with an implied but palpable optimism, also suggests things can be wound back in the opposite direction. We fight and defeat commerce. In this the truth and getting to the root of the matter is paramount – God and sanctimony we can do without. It also would be a better start in this direction if poets thought more, and at the expense of simply slotting into comfortable reading tropes.

God has left the auditorium

God has left the auditorium

Gerald Keaney


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