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.
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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.
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.