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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.


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