Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The Young Poet Only Writes to the Academic Professor

Thanks for the Original Message.
Hell, it's 6:06 PM already and I haven't started cooking dinner.
I guess Jasmine Anderson’s email doesn’t work
and the sky is very grey over Greensborough,
just like yesterday. We'd all really like a poem from her.
She’s one of the main people on our list.
But isn't she always? Damn it!
These anti-biotics are messing with my neurons.
The garden looks good with a wet path.
Utensils, too many utensils in the drawer.
'Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme' is like something from another time
or Time, as they say in those comics I threw in the recycler.
Let's talk about the transfer of herbs
but as the Pope has said many times
it's an apology makes a world of difference and makes the world different…
They've been saying that for some Time, Popes.
And then there's the job.
Not that they’ve actually given it to you yet,
but you’re thinking you won’t go for it when they advertise it.
A little oregano does wonders in a bolognese sauce.
Simon and Garfunkel, their version was always too sort of Why?
We must attend without going insane in the meantime,
so something has to go…
Sometimes it really is like Ashbery, sort of.
Oh I don’t know, is it like Ashbery?
The Grand Prix? Go? Where? Singapore?
Why do they always say “It was a more innocent time”?
I'll send this thing off to Sydney and see what they do with it.
The sestinas were over-wrought, like my balcony.
There the editors write ‘country music’ poems over coffee and tart
down the back table of the Bistro.
Sad lonely ‘country music’ is how they seem to want it,
that’s what they think they’re talking about.
But it could all be one big euphemism.
At least we can’t really hear the Grand Prix over here.
Here and hear in the one sentence, not sure how that works.
No more sestinas.
And how about this rain, don’t you know…

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Paul Kane's Drowned Lands

Paul Kane Drowned Lands University of South Carolina Press 1 57003 341 2

Reviewed by Philip Harvey in The Australian Book Review, late 2005

This is a poet who believes in a book that ‘lies open, taking the measure/of the world, of what in dreams is sought or/found in the fissure that separates and/joins two translucent worlds of fire and ice.’ (‘Frost, at Midnight’) Paul Kane’s technique for filling such a book is not by universalizing or massive cataloguing, but through crystalizations of favoured themes into poems that can read deceptively like plain English.  In this book ‘sky and land were sold for a song, which became an anthem/and then a dirge,’ school was where ‘daydreams stopped and humiliating knowledge began,’ and you, the individual,’have come this far/and still you think/your life will endure.’

Kane has a skill at revealing how experiences transpose prior awareness into other meanings, deeper, darker. His first premise is that the world is whole. After that,  preconceptions are vitally revised by the twin powers of personal and historical memory. Nothing could look more simple, for example, than his short poem entitled, very simply, ‘Australia’:

Island nation, island people - we are both:
the sea surrounds us on all sides, and washes up
into our dreams at night. We dream of it by day:
the image the shadow of the word, and the word
illumination by desire - mere mother sea of what
we are, or simply wish for, in this inseparate world.
            And in our ears, wind and words.

In his acclaimed critical history of 1996, Australian Poetry, Paul Kane went to lengths defining that quotient of the human race engaged in the problematic enterprise ‘Australian poetry’, without including the subset to which he belongs: non-Australian poets who take Australia as a theme. (Kane is also poetry editor of that North American journal of Australian literary studies of resourceful longevity, Antipodes.) A thorough-going orthodox syntax and metrical perfectionism are hallmarks of his work. The measured voice never strains and, to everyone’s relief, never drones as it carefully drops soft surprises one after the other. Every noun has its special shading. A predictability of tone, an evenness, is the necessary assistance for a content that upends expectations. It is his unargumentative placement of just the right details that makes the feel of Kane’s work, at its best, unforgettable.

A ribbon of cloud billows in the valley,
An opaque mirror of the river below.
You are crossing a bridge in sunlight,
Suspended above cloud, water, ground.
        And do you remember such moments?

he asks in ‘Shadows’, as if we answer any other way. Just occasionally such limpidity ends limply; we turn to look for more but the moment has passed and perhaps this is the price a poet pays who uses words with such consistently gentle persuasion. Only someone with real confidence in his powers could get the most well-worn rhyme in English to turn things over: ‘It is change we mean when we speak of time,/and night revolving into day repeats/its pattern of inevitable rhyme.’ (‘Outback before Dawn’) Such a verse draws us towards Kane’s handful of convictions: that we must accept our own scale before space and time, that everything is subject to change, that beauty is more than a possibility, and that something new can happen under the sun. A simple list, but how do any of us learn to live with their proverbiality?

That great compiler of maxims and paradoxes, that indulger of the proverb, Erasmus, is a Kane mainstay. Yet another poem about the Dutch Humanist (‘Concedo Nulli’) appears in this, Kane’s second collection. Visiting the Maison d’Erasme in Anderlecht, the poet works through the contrast between its run-down state (‘wit, satire/ridicule - even mortared stone can rot’) and the undeniable newness of ancient Latin choral singing he chances to hear:
In the faltering voices rehearsing
the hymns, there is no irony - and if
the priest takes pleasure in the sound, as do
I seated by a pillar in shadows,
it is because for moments at a time
what’s praised is neither knowledge nor folly,
but an absence we cannot account for.

Praise has become a crucial discovery in Kane’s work, a positive way out of the limbo of enclosed gesture. Poems using traditional religious stories, reminiscent of Levertov, also make a welcome entrance into Kane’s published work. In ‘Disciples Asleep at Gethsemane,’ Peter, James and John account for their inaction when vigil was invited, their excuses a mixture of desire to belong compromised by personal weaknesses. The challenge ‘to keep faith’ is harshly underscored in the final verse by an authorial voice prepared to extend personal rebuke to the extreme that ‘the dream erodes within,/and sweet hope is made sweeter by perversion.’ The lesson of commitment is never too late, the lesson of self-knowledge cannot be made alone. And in ‘Preaching the Cross’, the poet’s silent viewing of a room of crucifixion paintings teaches him to view the gallery space itself as the scene of darkness and light where ‘patrons stroll from one death to another, covetous/of their own good fortune.’ The gallery and, by implication, the world outside are identified as the place ‘where defeat became the transfigured norm.’

Michael Thwaites: “singing light, the beckoning Brindabellas”

Michael Thwaites UNFINISHED JOURNEY : COLLECTED POEMS 1932-2004 Ginninderra 1 74027 249 8

Reviewed by Philip Harvey in the Australian Book Review, early 2005

Gentlemen also write poems. Michael Thwaites is resolutely old school: set subjects, square metrics, good manners. He is a quiet achiever. Even his voice is quiet, though not so quiet that you can’t hear it. Solid statements, with a minimum of flourish or divertimenti, are his rule.

The book is divided into five chronological sections, so you can follow the story of a life lived. ‘Milton Blind’, an earnest construction, wins the Newdigate Prize for 1938. There is his wartime classic, ‘The Jervis Bay’, the narration of a 1940 sea battle in the North Atlantic that borrows from British imperial action verse while interleaving Murrayesque graphics:

           From the smoke floats are flowing
Streams of velvet solid smoke drifting over the ocean swell,
But the enemy gunners know their job.

After the war, the simple pleasures of punting on the Isis when not writing his thesis on Robert Browning: “One may forget these evil days, / Or drown with strident gramophoning / The echoes of Creation’s groaning.” Back in Melbourne he writes in praise of an important mentor, James Darling, Headmaster of Geelong Grammar School, “there was a treasure hidden in a field / Worth all the world, there was another road / You knew and told of, questing still yourself.” The language of the classical and biblical world becomes a reliable source. The second half of his life is passed in Canberra with its “singing light, the beckoning Brindabellas”, with its modernist vision of a mythic ideal, and the charming self-justification of those who choose to dwell there, found in such poems as ‘Psalm for an Artificial City’. Simple joys – first rain after a drought, land seen through clouds from a plane – are shared and praised.  Words to survivors and friends follow as age sets in.  

Are poets captive to their times? When is form an aid and when does it become a hindrance? How does a style maintain its effect? What makes a good poem dated? Is the effect everything or is lasting poetry the memorable image and line? Reading seventy years of a poet’s work prompts such questions. In his juvenile work, Thwaites addresses Australia as “Ye”; anyone who did that now would be praised for anachronistic irony or Ashbury contrivance. When we encounter the opening line of ‘Address to Mount Bogong’ (“Stentorian mountain, resonant as your name”) we know that meaning is in the ear of the beholder. In ‘Cultural Interface’ he can come up with the educated lines

Three kangaroos, grey eminences, rose
staring, paws crossed, with worried faces fixed,
casing the intruder

only then to spoil the movement with unconvincing discussion. A determination to keep to copybook forms and diction while ignoring the adventurous prosodic discoveries of his own times, means that some of the poetry gets too weighty for its own good, or lurches cumbersomely into overstatement. Whatever happened to T.S. Eliot? Where, for that matter, is Robert Browning? Thwaites lines up behind A.D. Hope.

Some of these poems could have done with rewriting by the poet in his maturity, as Auden was wont to do. Some of them could have done with the standard exercise set by Peter Porter: remove the last verse and see if it makes any difference. In some cases here, only the last verse should have been kept and one poem should never have been allowed to see again the light of day. ‘The Extinction of the Tasmanian Aborigines’ is sentimentalism based on a white man’s myth, uses bland clichés and is historically disproven. Elegies must honour, even if they do not transfigure. Which raises a thorny dilemma. This collection reminds us of the fallibility of noble thoughts nobly expressed. It is not just that immediacy, irony and obliquity have set the pace of the game for so long, they have trained us up to question straightforward laudatory verse.

For me, Thwaites’s best poems are descriptions of personal relationships, often set in transit or in an enlarged moment of epiphany with place or God. ‘Bricks’, ‘Coming into the Clyde’ and ‘Pause’ are achieved examples. The final section, birthday poems for his wife, is a revelation in this respect, a natural voice both intimate and humourous. They ought to be read together with ‘Fragment of a Chinese Classic’, an example of how when a poet untightens his control and speaks more informally, he writes precisely the kind of ideal formal poem that the rest of the time he strains to compose. Loving and comic marital conversation, the small picture they enjoy together, is counterpoised against the big picture of the powers, time, and continents. The result is satisfying and satisfactory.

For those who like their poetry in traditional metres with easily accessible themes, there are good things to enjoy here. For those who prefer to pass the long Horatian afternoon in the unlikely surrounds of the Capital, you could do worse than have this chap as your companion. For those who like taking modest trips through the recent century with a poet who has avoided all the literary fashions, and persisted unscathed, Michael Thwaites, an Australian nonagenarian (nearly), is your man.

Jennifer Compton and Cathy Young

Jennifer Compton PARKER & QUINK Indigo 1 74027 248 X

Reviewed by Philip Harvey in the Australian Book Review, 2004

Jennifer Compton creates uneasy feelings. Her monologues come from desperate people, frantic, locked out, locked in. They all have some secret and are going to tell us, if it takes subtlety or no subtlety. What saves their querulous, impossible concerns from turning into rants or whinges, is Compton’s actorly control of voice. These are poems of original intent and purposive control. The shocking ideas at the centre of her poems are tempered by a voice trying to master the extreme reality they relate. Her dramatic proclivities inform her work at every turn: a character is usually in a place they don’t want to be, new circumstances have to be negotiated with an old map of the mind. On occasion she even writes directions straight into the verse (“I’ll shift from my mother’s voice and just give you the gist”), an unashamed member of theatre workshops.

Black humour is the favoured medium and the reader is left to decide which shade of black is now on display. The title poem (and shortest) of the collection puts this syndrome well:

To write your email address
with a fountain pen filled with ink
like lighting a candle on the moon.

This calmly implies concerns that elsewhere are said less than calmly. Words need to say something, anything, everything. With this comes a corresponding dread that words cannot succeed, that between me and you is a gap that even words cannot cross, that words may only make worse. As is written in ‘During the Power Cut I Read, by Candlelight, “Ballade” by Kenneth Koch’:

At the age of 21
I bent
to find out what words meant.
I had to
to find out what the words meant.

The Beckettian modus operandi of most of Compton’s work is not apparent though in the most disturbing and difficult poem here, called ‘Imposing the Chat’. The fun turns very nasty, but as a serious work that raises suppressed questions about how Australians relate to one another and the land, this is one poem you ought to confront.

To contrast these two collections raises a question that faces poets and readers alike. A century of refinement of the personal voice places us in a certain relationship to the maker of individual experience on the page. Compton turns trauma and disturbance into startling narratives and bravura art, while Cathy Young turns hard-won experience into shared narratives that depend for their success as much on identification as artistry. With Compton we can never be sure how much the poems speak of her experience (they sit at odds with her comfy biography in the back); with Young it is crucial to the poem’s effect that we believe every word. One Compton persona ruminates, ‘I can read the Australians, / some with an Asian cast of feature. Some not.’ - a hesitancy we would not expect from Cathy Young. Compton’s first person is a trickster, Young’s first person relies on our sympathetic trust.

In turn, this question influences how we read both poets. Jennifer Compton writes of a world in which the rules of engagement are unclear and more than likely dysfunctional. For Young, there are two sets of rules, those set by society and those that working women know in order to survive.  The subtitle tells the story of Cathy Young’s poetic project (Some Hard-Working Women Poems 1960-2000, SA & Victoria), an effort of memory and experience close to the bone. The results are a social expose of class, a combination of ordinary speech and everyday facts made into tough language incidents. Young continues the line of Australian work poem championed by Overland and 925 magazine: individual voice, explicit description of the workplace, a high value on labour, and a clear view of the injustices of the employer/employee relationship. This is life without illusions, a raw encounter with survival that society prefers to keep anonymous.

Young has seen it all and done it all, the hard way. In ‘banded and bagged and sealed and boxed’ she recounts the repetition of a paper plate factory, “down a lane off a back street / through a doorway”, where women worked arduous hours in “a waking prison”, the one incentive “5 bucks more a week how could she refuse?” The studied (in any other review they would be called Heaneyesque) opening lines of ‘So what was it like (in the home)?’

It was the raw heat of ironing room presses
not giving the cool of summer morning
a chance to breathe as you walked through

are swamped by her true voice breaking in to articulate the pained frustration of coarse routine:

passing left stoked up to boiling-industrial
washing machines right drying room cabinets

onward through a massive list of unpaid jobs, noisy conditions, and personal crises that lead inexorably to thoughts of escape, “feet running the driveway / crunch-crunch-crunch-crunch …”

Other times even escape is left out as she pushes daily inevitability to its limits. Young’s stories, many of them more like testimonies or testaments, succeed most when there is least irony. Indeed, the accumulated details of these womens’ lives, spoken with a level-headed direct speech, rely on a minimum of literary arrows for their effects. She gives basic dignity to her subjects and veers right away from pathos. It is this last achievement that makes for heightened credibility.

The poetry is heard in the patterns of daily grind – unimaginative schooling, thankless factory jobs, single motherhood. It comes over in the small intimacies, usually unexpected, that break into the relentless automated behaviour of low-paid jobs. The poetry makes itself heard in plain English statements, summaries of hard-earned philosophy. ‘Fashion Statements’, for example, a long list of 1960s Adelaide dress sense, perfume and make-up, concludes with the line ‘it was all happening down Elizabeth way’.

For me, there are two potential pitfalls in such poetry. The first is the danger of victimhood. Generally Young is too worldly-wise, even sassy, to indulge in “poor pitiful me”; her bad humoured attitudes are a positive and a form of quality control. There are times though when the shared experience is okay, but is there anything else going on? The second is the weakness of such freeform exposition being no more than a job description. Sections of ‘Sleazy jobs’ (‘Foxy boxer’, ‘Lap dancer’, ‘Pro’), for example, supply just enough facts for us to understand their demeaning nature. Perhaps that’s all the poet needs to say, but Young’s own speaking voice and the performance feel of the writing are somehow missing on the printed page. They are in danger of being sociology rather than epiphany. What comes across everywhere though is work as intrinsic to living, something given special note in the excellent small poem ‘On being unemployed’:

I am a sequence
waiting to happen
a history wanting
to begin
like a song without words or
a tune without a beat
a static sequence.