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Oct 18, 2017

Rundle: why the middlebrow culturati declared war on HSC students over a poem

Gen X, Y and Z culture commanders have rallied the troops after a bunch of year 12 students expressed their dislike of a set text from their HSC exams. The horror!

In the annals of the Culture Wars, the Battle of the Mango is going to prove an instructive moment. If you haven’t caught up with it yet, be prepared to plunge into something you thought you’d never have to do again: year 12 exam poetry interpretation, for thereby hangs a tale …

For their English exam, New South Wales year 12 HSC students were set a number of possible poems that might come up on the exam, including short lyrics by Yeats, Auden, and a piece by young Australian poet Ellen van Neerven called Mango, which is about an eight-year-old girl going down to the dam, where the boys are, and various things happening. Spoiler alert: in this poem, mangoes aren’t just mangoes.

From the poem itself, you can tell the setting is rural and by presuming author is narrator that it’s a girl, but that’s about it. You will be amazed to find that year 12 students did not all enjoy the experience of reading this poem. In fact, a lot of them seemed to really dislike it, and it appeared to sum up their frustrations with the whole torturous process of doing HSC. But, though it appears nowhere in the text, van Neerven is an indigenous writer, and on that fact much would later turn.

As regards the poem, I can see the kids’ point. Mango is an engaging enough simple lyric, but the scene it describes is pretty cliched, and it’s rendered in short lines that make it/seem more/portentous without/having to/do/much/work. The thematic is pure HSC fodder: a fairly direct narrative of sexual contact with boys of an indeterminate age, and the narrator hinting she might have enjoyed it. That gives the poem a twist and a sting, but no more than your average pop song, and considerably less than a lot of rap and other genres, which kids just consume as non-set texts.

They don’t seem to have had a problem with set questions on Auden or Yeats, but the exam question, “how does the speaker convey delight?” in Mango really set them off. Tracking back several days on the Facebook “HSC 2017 Study Group” it’s clear that class of 2017 took Mango as a symbol of all that was paradoxical and torturous about HSC, in which juicy, delicious life and success dangle tantalisingly, just out of reach. The memes there on Mango the poem, and mangoes themselves, are rude, unfair, and sometimes downright fruit-pornographic; some would no doubt be a bit scarifying to the poet reading them. Inconveniently, they’re also very, very funny. It wasn’t that they hated poetry; they just seemed to feel there wasn’t much to the poem — “four sentences chopped into sixteen lines,” one said — and they were rebelling against being asked to find a depth in it that might not be there.

None of these hundreds of mango musings referred to the poem’s author, or to race at all. Their authors were simply pissed off at an unctuous poem they found unconvincing, and having some fun with it. The single posting that could have been taken as racist was of a clip-art picture of a chimp banging away at a typewriter, labelled “Ellen van Neerven at work on another poem” or some such. But that, too, seemed to have no racial component — more a reference to the old idea of enough monkeys at typewriters being capable of coming up with Shakespeare (it will sure as hell teach the poster to be careful with ape/animal, etc, memes).

There were tears in the end of course. Some jerks ferreted out van Neerven’s personal Facebook page and began posting some hostile stuff. The items quoted in subsequent reports were of the “your poem made me hate mangoes and I love mangoes” and “what the hell was your poem about?” variety. It was said there were death threats — though the image quoted with that was an anime figure being thwacked with a mango. No racist postings were quoted, and the monkey/typewriter image was recycled.

What happened after this was really interesting. The story hit the meeja, and the race angle was taken as uppermost. New South Wales education honchos labelled the Facebook chat as “abusive” — even that not directed at van Neerven directly — and the HSC students themselves responded with a weary and sardonic notification to each other that the meme had been noted, and that, of course, it had been labelled t.e.h. racistz.

What was really happening was something else: a war between certain cultural power centres, and a cohort leaving school and coming into the adult world. The cultural power centres, occupied by gen X, gen Y and older Millennials were all about enforcing a “racism first” interpretation of the fuss; the HSC kids hadn’t even registered that race was an issue here.

[Rundle: Trump is the end of the left as we know it]

What they saw instead was something that the older “intersectional” cohorts couldn’t see: an enforcement of cultural power, in which the students were presented with a poem, told to find it delightful, and then to tell the examiners how it achieved these effects. A lot of them thought there wasn’t much to it, but there wasn’t any scope to say that in the exam questions, so they said it on Facebook instead — in a variety of very creative ways. They should have just handed in the Facebook page, instead of doing the exam.

Though one’s sympathies are with a poet, writing a lyric, used without consulting her, in an exam, one has to say the students’ scepticism was well-founded. The approach being dictated to students — to find a hidden depth and complexity of process in something that seemed a bit obvious — was evidence of the old high-culture/mass culture split, in which the depth and worth of study of a text is determined not by its quality, but by its genre and framing. Despite some dallying with pop cultural forms (“eros and agape in the work of Mr. Eminem”), lyric poetry still gets a free pass in year 12 curricula. The scepticism on the Facebook page — and the visual wit with which some of it is expressed — is kinda refreshing.

But not for the XYZ gen culture warriors. First The Guardian and the Daily Mail jumped on it, the latter taking a delicious opportunity to hate the young. Then the XYZ orgs got into the act. Pushing aside the frayed copy of Mark Davis’ Gangland lying on the table, they fired up the Thinkpad and thundered away. From the respectable matrons of the Stella Prize to popular Melbourne cultural branding vehicle The Lifted Brow, they thundered at these punk kids: do you know how distinguished this poet is? Brow lifted, rank pulled.

On Twitter, ageing professional youf such as Junkee’s Osman Faruqi, and J.R. Hennessy from Channel Nine shopfront Pedestrian TV made winking remarks about the students’ protestations of non-racism, recycling the monkey/typewriter image again.

Poet Omar Sakr told them off for wanting the poet to interpret the poem for them, and to do the work — of being formed as disciplined subjects — themselves. Clementine Ford called them “entitled and racist youth”. Bit early to put on the cardigan of curmudgeon surely, Clem? It was the perfect alliance between the youf-hating right, and the power-groupings of the intersectional left. The spectacle — an entitled group of cultural producers who assumed that rebellion was constituted by endless agonising and reciprocal shaming over alleged racism/transphobia/etc, etc — was hilarious to behold, especially when they quoted all the prizes van Neerven has won. Yeah, that was kinda the students’ point, implicitly or otherwise.

For the latter, this crop of post-Millennials (do they have a name yet?) born at the turn of this century, may constitute a standing challenge to their enforcement of political micro-moralising, and — the horror! — may not consent to their awkward but lucrative pose of holding cultural power while appearing to challenge it. Most of HSC class 2017 will never read a poem again, and will have neither regard for, nor even knowledge of, the state-subsidised middlebrow culture whose authority is here being enforced. For the XYZ culture commanders, this is heresy.

[Rundle: Weinstein’s ruin epitomises how we do politics now]

Mango is authorised feeling by one of their own, goddammit, and if the sales reps, legal secretaries and Mr Muffler franchisees of the future are going to take the piss, well, take their names! Sadly, for them, these kids have all read The Hunger Games. It might be all some of them have read. They know a performative self-regarding elite when they see one.

Perhaps there was some nasty stuff floating around. If so, I’m happy to be corrected. But no one has produced anything other than the ambiguous chimp-typewriter post, and the “I hate yez poemes” posts. It’s intriguing how willing the XYZ culturati were to damn such an obvious expression of free thought and free spirit by an autonomous, self-assembling group of teenagers, using that most echt of media, a Facebook chat group. Why, it’s almost as if we didn’t need state-subsidised culture at all! Again, the horror!

Well, what’s the upshot? Organisations like Education New South Wales definitely shouldn’t use a living Australian poet’s work without asking them (a lapse in responsibility) — and poets should be careful about licensing lyrics to be read by 70,000 stressed 17-year-olds. The culture bites back these days, chomping into your juicy mangoes. Discuss.

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48 comments

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48 thoughts on “Rundle: why the middlebrow culturati declared war on HSC students over a poem

  1. rhwombat

    Fair ’nuff. Nice return of service, Mr Rundle. I do like the concept of pissing off XYZ+ Kultcha Komandas though.

    1. lykurgus

      You do understand that he’s describing himself (because he doesn’t)?
      Every apoplectic screech of “kids today” (invariably from those of us who were worse) trails the same dewy chemtrail of delusion that it’s a witty original insight into the modern age; and has done since Socrates got himself all triggered about the written word.

      1. rhwombat

        Of course he’s describing himself – it would be insufficiently ironic not to be doing so. As for Socrates – Grundle dreeeeams of taking Hemlock: Corrupting Youf? Check! Introducing foreign gods? Check! We have a winnah!

        1. lykurgus

          Well, he knows it NOW.

  2. crakeka

    No, disagree. “Coons can’t afford mangoes” is racist as is the chimp typing. (cf Adam Goodes “ape” gibes) By all means complain to the Board of Studies but to personally attack the poet on Facebook and Twitter is not only unacceptable, it is pretty stupid as well.
    The question was on a set text, worth only two marks and was not a difficult one to answer effectively.

  3. old greybearded one

    I am not sure that these prats shouldn’t have their English discounted. Frankly Guy, bullshit! I don’t mind the poem, don’t think it says what you think, but who cares. TS Elliot it ain’t, but it isn’t bad. The I could have written that morons are just that, morons. To abuse the author who had no say in the matter, is utterly disgraceful and if racist even more so.

    1. Guy Rundle

      but most of them weren’t contacting her directly. they were talking about it on facebook. theyre allowed to do that surely?

      1. Craig Lawton

        They annoyed Clem Ford. Legends I say.

  4. Kelly

    I’m certain that if social media had existed when I did the TEE in Perth in the 1990s I would have heartily abused Patrick White over A Fringe of Leaves.

    1. jmendelssohn

      Its about time the Board of Studies learnt about trolling on social media, and adjusted their choice of texts accordingly. If they are looking for poetry that students are unlikely to have encountered (a prerequisite for the HSC unseen text) I suggest they choose from an English translation of something originally written in Latin or classic Japanese. A passage from Virgil’s Georgics or the Pillowbook of Sei Shonagon would be guaranteed some form of response from the average adolescent.

  5. Dog's Breakfast

    “occupied by gen X, gen Y and older Millennials were all about enforcing a “racism first” interpretation of the fuss; the HSC kids hadn’t even registered that race was an issue here”

    That was exactly how my daughter related the days events to me (she currently doing said exam)

    “The approach being dictated to students — to find a hidden depth and complexity of process in something” is the very essence of English studies these days, and I find it abhorrent. The rest of your takedown of middlebrow culturati and right wing reactionaries is probably much closer to the truth than many would credit.

    Perhaps it was just blowing off steam after having to put up with 6 years of studying faux ‘depth’ in works not much more substantial than a puddle, while cleverly being steered away from anything that might actually engage their growing and yet to be completely dulled faculties. How did english studies become so co-opted?

    “They know a performative self-regarding elite when they see one.”
    You bet they do Guy, and perhaps there might be a clue as to why Hunger Games, Divergent, The Giver and all those other teen heroine (female hero, not drug) books gained such popularity.

    These comments are not about this particular poem or author however, just the general thrust of english studies these days, nor do my comments condone any threats or abuse directed her way. It should all have been directed to the Bored (sic) of Studies.

    1. Dog's Breakfast

      Nice reference to Gangland, GR. It was only this morning I re-read Richard Cooke’s ‘The Boomer Supremacy’ article from last year, still resonant. I’m not quite sure why you didn’t include boomers in the gaggle of the culturati, but you probably know better than I. They’re the sort of people I don’t come across much, and I run for the hills if I find myself in their proximity by some accident.

    2. John Donovan

      Bang on Dogs Breakfast. My daughter came home from her Year 12 exam with exactly the same take. She is a contributor to the HSC studies page on facebook, and backed up the response from your child. From her discussions with friends, there was zero thought of racist responses. Her feedback – the poem was simple, dumb and didn’t give them much to work with. We discussed the whole typewriter/monkey/hamlet thing and that seemed to resonate with her cohorts thoughts. Give enough people enough time and something racist is bound to surface on facebook comments – but this was the world we invented, and we have handed the keys to todays 18 year olds. We can’t get shitty when they do something with it we don’t like. It’s their job to do that. We are old an irrelevant in their eyes, and they are a bunch of ungrateful upstarts… That’s how the cycles work.

  6. zut alors

    Why couldn’t ‘the sales reps, legal secretaries and Mr Muffler franchisees of the future’ simply answer the question without resorting to a public forum to vent? Or is it standard youf habit these days to critique poetry on Facebook/Twitter. Until today I was unaware Facebook is the modern embodiment of Gertrude Stein’s salon, who knew.

    It’s a lucky thing Auden & Keats dodged having Facebook accounts.

    1. John Donovan

      We built it. They use it. No big surprise.

    2. Mike Smith

      It’s standard *everyone* habit to discuss stuff on social media. Whether it’s as banal as what you ate last night, watched on tv, etc. I guess exam material is fair game too.

  7. John Lyons

    It is amazing that the examiners who included an obscure poem by a unknown (by most) writer with a Dutch name. Should round on students who objects to its inclusion by branding the students racists. Surely the Dutch embassy should be asked to comment as the students obviously thought it a bad translation from a Nederland text.
    John Lyons

  8. Nudiefish

    I always try and take away a sample of Mr Rundle’s pieces to ruminate over for couple of hours of end of day work. This time I am struggling to form an opinion. What should I think? Sometimes a poem is just a poem.

    The only thing I can come up with immediately is that commentators often love to attack stuff for the sport of it. In some cases the subject matter is irrelevant. In this instance an incomplete thought by an indigenous poet has plenty of meat for some people.

  9. Lucas Hollands

    As a year 12 student, I was close to ground zero of this absolute shit-storm (no, I did not send anything to Ms. Neerven). I’d just like to say that this is the only article I’ve seen that tells our side of the story. Thank you.

  10. Will

    I’d be very damned interested to see the poet’s own genuine answer to that exam question (which GR misquoted, by the way). There’d be red faces, I’d warrant.

    1. Mike Smith

      @Will like this?

      English teacher
      A person who puts more thoughts into a text than the actual author did.
      For instance: “the curtains were blue”
      What your English teacher thinks: “the curtains represent represent his immense depression and lack of will to carry on.”
      What the author meant: “The curtains were f**king blue.”

      1. Will

        By which standard a ‘poet’ is a random-word generator, right, like a monkey at a typewriter? (Oh, wait!)

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