John Watson, ‘Occam’s Aftershave’ in the Australian
Poetry as an art form, with plenty of wit and whimsy
Geoff Page reviews John Watson's Occam's Aftershave Aug 18 2012
It's not very often these days that you find yourself laughing uproariously while reading contemporary Australian poetry. Yet to describe John Watson as a comic poet would be to sell him too short. His poems range considerably, from beautifully poised meditations in the manner of Wallace Stevens through to light-hearted satire and Edward Lear-style nonsense.
Many of the poems in Occam's Aftershave (such as Untitled, 1964 and A Max Beckmann Retrospective) are joyfully and unapologetically ekphrastic. They are frequently self-aware but not at all postmodern – even if their creator is not shy about addressing the reader directly. Watson also breaks other unspoken poetry conventions by offering numerous poems that are plainly artes poeticae. Most collections, even careers, permit only a few of these but Occam's Aftershave is rich with them. Watson delights in poetry's “broad church” and is keen to restore the comic and the whimsical (even the aleatory) to a more central role in the tradition.
In the opening poem, 'To the Faithful Reader', Watson reminds him/her that
poetry and jokes are alike, both skirting
The hem of things, the indrawn breath of wonder corresponding
To the hush before the punchline . . .
Watson's poetic pantheon clearly includes not only Stevens but also the playful and eccentric Marianne Moore as well as the more contemporary Paul Muldoon. Watson insists on poetry as artifice, as something “made”, rather than its being an invisible and seamless description of reality. This makes him almost hyper-aware of the history of the art form and its accumulated range of techniques. Indeed, the penultimate poem in this collection, Grand Tour of the Prevailing Tropes, is a slyly mocking celebration of the Newcastle Poetry Prize's 30th anniversary. There is a hardly a trend in recent Australian poetry that is not referred to and/or made fun of. If a poem such as this seems a little too “in-house” for some readers then that is a risk Watson is happy to take (and it is perhaps no surprise to note almost all his books have the same publisher).