Ann McCulloch (2005). Dance of Language: A Study of the Selected Notebooks of A. D. Hope, Canberra: Pandanus Books.

Overview and Argument: Mapping the Maze

The poetry and other writings of A. D. Hope were written mostly in the second half of the twentieth century. Given Hope’s engagement and knowledge in all areas relating to the writing of poetry (myth, aesthetics; literary and cultural history; philosophy, cosmology et al), access to his daily jottings into note-books becomes mandatory for poets, philosophers and critics who wish to experience a variety of unique perspectives from one of the great poets and thinkers of the twentieth century.

This book presents an argument. It is one that subverts slick categorising of a writer too readily represented as conservative, sexist and old-fashioned. The argument asks readers to enter into the Hope world which is contradictory, nomadic and incessantly dedicated to the capacities of human beings to act, contemplate and create. It is not a world in which answers are anticipated but rather one where they are nevertheless relentlessly pursued. It is said of Hope that he was stuck in old forms and therefore unable to deal with himself as subject. This book argues an opposite view. The extent to which he experimented with ideas in the guise of another testifies to his philosophical conviction as a nomad.

The subject is Hope, the subject is world [1], and the poem is the bridge that tenuously connects mind and matter. If this bridge is difficult to navigate it is because from the chasm below there comes the echo of the ‘ghostly shades’ of the people he might have been and the ‘truths’ that he almost had which jostle for recognition in the music of his poetic form.

In selecting extracts for this compilation I feel that, more than anything else, it has been Hope’s ‘detachment’ that has fascinated me; and it informs each of the areas that I have selected in organising the material and presenting an argument of a kind. Don Juan, Faustus, and Odysseus were also my ‘guides’ in that the obsessions, travels and philosophies of life of these mythological figures were influential in the development of Hope’s poetic vision. In asking Hope where he thought I should begin in attempting to represent his work and his life, whether in film or in biographical commentaries [2]. He responded with a poem. The following two stanzas served to guide me:

Where to begin? – No matter where you start,
You will find three persons in one at least, all real,
All with different roots; How can you tell them apart
Each entwined as they are with others with whom you must deal?

And resist, if you can, the biographer’s natural urge
To tidy the subject up and deliver him neat.
Remember loose ends hang loose, won’t mix or merge,
But without them the portrait must always be incomplete [3].

In an attempt to follow this advice I have chosen chapter headings that I hope will be construed as the names of pathways in a maze, separate yet merging with each other. They attempt to map an intellectual life and the point of emergence of the art; yet equally they form frameworks in which it can be seen how precarious the connection is between the two. We are, Hope told me often, the result not only of the choices we made but of those we did not choose:

We are shaped by our choices, even those we did not make
Or which were made for us, sometimes against our will.
Where pathways diverge, the ones that we did not take
Mostly forgotten, serve to determine us still [4].

Hope does see living as partly composed of blind choices, and has noted that in looking back one sees that comparatively trivial choices have often determined one’s course. I believe that he would like his notes to be read in this spirit. It is within the context of the maze that my selections from Hope’s Notebooks appear; a reader might choose any of the chapters as a starting point when negotiating the pathways.

Hope writes narratives with philosophical questions in poetic form. These questions often emerge from the most unlikely of sources. As a poet Hope recognizes that human beings engage with the world as contemplators and people of action; these activities may well be subject-matter for his poems. Yet, specifically as a poet, Hope is fascinated, perhaps even obsessed, with his view that beyond the ways of life of contemplation and action, there is a third way; and together the three comprise ‘all the modes of man’s existence’. Hope argues:

The third way of life I should call the creative way. It is distinguished from the others in the same manner: by a distinct relation of man to the ends he proposes and desires and by a distinctive emotion which attends the pursuit and fruition of these ends. As the mark of the active way of life is to possess the objects of desire, and the mark of the contemplative way of life is to enjoy the knowledge of the objects of desire, so the mark of the creative way of life is to bring new objects of desire into being. Those who have this gift or urge have it as Dante says, as bees have the instinct to make honey [5].

During the extensive time I spent with Hope, in my attempt to make sense of what often appeared to me as a philosophy of contradictions, he referred me back to his essay ‘The Three Faces of Love’ more than to any other. In reading my selections from Hope’s Notebooks it would be wise to remember the significance he gave to this creative way of life; it haunts and invigorates his excursions into all those ‘trifles’ he hunts down in order to solve some related problem.

In creating ‘new being’ Hope ventures into worlds of mystery where moments of insight slip and shift and often resist ultimate illumination. He enters his ‘stories’ (drawn from mythology and socio-cultural activity) with philosophical questions (couched in an argument that relies on analogy) and he resists the ‘quick-fix’ of the emotional and the confessional (wearing armour in his stance as the detached observer). Hope questions the habits of mind and heart that deliver metaphysical and phenomenological world-views across time and cultures. There is an ebb and flow of belief against disbelief, engagement against detachment and form against content.

I decided to treat Hope’s Notebooks thematically, with entries selected under each theme, to be presented in chronological order. This method allows the reader to ascertain whether there have been changes, developments and breaks away from belief and disbelief entertained at different points in Hope’s life. Hope’s entire life and work was influenced by a philosophical propensity termed ‘Negative Capability,’ which Hope first encountered when he read the letters of John Keats [6]. It must have been a rare moment of intellectual empathy for Hope who recorded in his Notebook in 1969 that his generation of poets and critics, given their obsessive need to write – as if a new method was necessarily a better method – might be better served if they employed a ‘degree of negative capability’ which would allow them to ‘enter into all theories and all techniques, to test and taste with no irritable concern with rights and wrong, with mine and thine’ [7].

Given Hope’s tendency to enter many ideas, or the minds of others, or emulate or satirise a poem or poet, or re-write a play or subvert the notion of ‘truth’ or concepts of ‘normality’ (whether dictated by axioms of science or morality), or to simply entertain a passing thought, it was impossible to order his Notebooks in a logical, structured manner that would suggest a kind of answer to the questions one asks of Hope’s work.

The arrangement of these selections, therefore, consists of a mapping of Hope’s territory that conforms to the rhizomic model created by Deleuze and Guattari. As such, it resists the more rigid, ordered systems of thought and chronology. Instead, the twelve points of entry, designated as chapters, that follow this one, a first entry point into the mind of Hope, entail an implied analysis that has grown like the rhizome entwining disparate elements into its unmapped expansion [8]. This rhizomic model is to be distinguished from more familiar models of knowledge that function like a tree, with an ordered root system below (logic, a priori knowledge, concepts of the norm) and branches radiating off a central trunk (resultant knowledge, universal truth) above. Deleuze and Guattari denominate this an “arborescent” or a “tap-root” system. Hope’s Notebooks are best represented rhizomically. His writings resist – indeed, part of their intent and virtue is that they resist – any rigid, easy, external structure of chronology and theme.

When making a decision how to order the pathways it was clear to me that, given the extent to which the themes impinge on each other, and yet the independence of each , there could not be any “correct” order.

These ‘entryways’ and ‘exits’ are named with the following conceptual frameworks:

‘Negative Capability’ establishes the philosophical thrust of Hope’s world-view, emphasizing the importance of treating all knowledge as provisional. Hope sees the poet as an actor who takes on a role and asks ‘what if’ of imagined situations; only weaker, ‘less healthy’ minds, Hope argues find themselves obsessed with ‘coherence, control and whatever’. This means that we shouldn’t be afraid of contradictions in Hope’s work. On the contrary one should anticipate that Hope will enter into different ideas, sometimes testing them, sometimes merely representing them, and sometimes satirizing them.

Anti-Modernism’ records Hope’s constant and relentless attack on modernism, particularly its emergence in poetry as ‘free verse’. Hope’s insistence that a poem is ‘a creation of new being’, that in communicating a philosophical idea it must do so in a musical form, possible only if the poem is crafted according to the rules of rhyme and metre, set him apart from many of his contemporaries. Hope’s belief in the provisional nature of all knowledge, it would seem, does not include the question of form in poetic construction. Hope’s position, though, is more complex than this contradiction may suggest. His distaste for what he saw as a lack of craft, a mere collection of poetic images without form, was not disconnected, in his view, from the modernist tendency to use the poem as a confessional, as a mere pouring forth of emotional feelings. This lack of control he saw as related to the abandonment of rhyme and metre.

‘Detachment’ might be read with interest when considering these views. Here there are representations of many sides of Hope’s belief in being a detached spectator of life and a detached creator in his poems, and hint at how these can, at times, reveal a personality in the act of concealing it. Nevertheless from the early 1980s it is clear that he feels, despite his avowal that the best poetry is distilled, crafted and ‘disinterested’, that he has lost the battle against the writers of free verse.

‘Argument with Writers, Poets and Critics’ represents selectively Hope’s dialogues with writers, thinkers and artists of his time, as well as those from the past who have influenced his poetic vision.

‘What is Art?’ presents Hope’s analysis of the criteria for ‘great’ art. His views on ‘genius’ and the relationship between the poet and the voice of the narrator are explored.

The Source of the Poems outlines experiences from life, or ideas from other works, that Hope anticipates he may draw on at a later period as the sources of poems.

‘Cosmology’ communicates Hope’s excitement when confronted with scientific interpretations of the world. A half-hearted determinist, Hope enjoyed taking on the scientists – physicists, astronomers, biologists etc. – often because of their inability to accept the provisional nature of knowledge. In the light of this, scientific concepts themselves are often a source of inspiration for his work, though simultaneously the subject matter of the poem may be dealing with further issues.

‘Wine, Women and Insectual Song’, selects from a vast range of material dealing with sexuality, and with Hope’s passionate interest in women as muses, as writers, and as subjects of his poetry. Central to his vision is his belief that women provide a way for him to access a distinctive metaphysical view of life. Sexuality, which for Hope is interchangeable with love, is the basis of much of Hope’s poetry. His descriptions of the sexual behaviour of insects include unforgettable images of sensual beauty, which he draws from in many poems.

‘A Sense of Destiny’ consists of Hope’s jottings about how he comes to see himself as a poet and how others have either attempted to categorize him or simply to praise him.

‘The Dream Team’ manifests the diversity of Hope’s thought. There are more entries in the Notebooks on his theory of dreams than on any other topic, and many of these seem to be dealing with all his poetic and personal preoccupations. Hope’s theory is an alternative to Freud’s, and throughout his notebooks he has recorded numerous dreams delighting with how he, in his dreams, is taken over:

. . . by a throng
of revellers and roisterers who proceed
To invent whole theatres of improbable dreams [9].
Argument by Analogy’ dramatizes the ways in which a philosophical argument can be represented via analogy. Hope believes that all great poems contain within their music an argument of some kind. He distrusts arguments based on the assumption that certain facts are fundamental, elemental and axiomatic and that, in knowledge, no other facts have to be brought into consonance with them; and attributes this insight to the teaching he received from John Anderson as an undergraduate at the University of Sydney [10]. Hope’s use of analogy as his preferred form of argument follows on from the removal of the dead hand of nineteenth-century rationalism which had formed the earlier basis of his thinking. This chapter explores the gamut of his views on society, whether directed at social and moral mores, the processes of artistic creation or the impact of technology on our lives.

The twelve points of entry that characterise the ‘structure’ of this text are presented chronologically. The choice of pathways constitute an argument of how Hope’s view of himself and his work is a paradoxical one hovering as it does between intention and realisation. Hope, of course, would concede that to be in charge of self, or the world one wishes to represent poetically, is an impossible task. The Notebooks, however, show his struggle to control personal and aesthetic boundaries and a certain amusement at his failure to do so. Endemic to my selections, and the pathways down which they are accessed, is an implied argument that Hope’s need to be detached was equally a source of his brilliance as well as an expression of his personal anguish [11].



1. See J. Clemens and D. Pettman, Avoiding the Subject: Media, Culture and the Object, where they argue that one can only grasp the subject by avoiding it – and in necessarily in new, unprecedented, even unrecognisable ways. Hope’s ‘detachment’, his insistence on traditional poetic forms, is his way of creating poems that enact subjectivity itself in the guise of avoiding or suppressing it. Clemens’ and Pettman’s treatment of the object highlights feedback loops between philosophy, technology and politics. In a surprisingly similar manner Hope in engaging in the precarious relationship between mind and world sees his poems as ‘objects’ that nonetheless are loops between philosophy and art that are generated within the creative process itself as it carve out constantly changing, always provisional, ‘new being’ in a state of ‘becoming’.

2. See McCulloch, The Dance of Language: An Annotated Chronology, His Life, His Work, His Views.

3. See poem addressed to Ann McCulloch in its entirety in McCulloch, ‘A Lecture: Given on the Eve of A.D. Hope’s Eightieth Birthday’, pp. 12-13.

4. Ibid.

5. Hope, ‘The Three Faces of Love’, in The Cave and the Spring, p. 24.

6. Geoffrey Cumberlege (Ed.), Letters of John Keats, Selected by Frederick Page.

7. Hope, Book X, 1969, p. 91.

8. See Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 21, where a rhizome is described as different from the ‘arborescent type…. Unlike the tree, the rhizome is an antigenealogy. It is a short-term memory, or antimemory. The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots. Unlike the graphic arts, drawing, or photography, unlike tracings, the rhizome pertains to a map. ..’.

9. Hope, Orpheus, p. 17.

10. Hope, Book VII, 1964, p. 118.

11. See, in particular, poems written by Hope when dealing with actually living in an Australian landscape.