Skip to main content


Showing posts from 2012

It was a whole new sweetness

Electric Light, by Seamus Heaney.   (Faber ISBN 0571207626, Farrar, Straus & Giroux ISBN 0374146837, published 2001) Review by Philip Harvey first published in Tin Tean. Seamus Heaney keeps rolling along. His ordered cadences and grounded tones, we can also say ground tones both in the sense of gravelly and well-honed, come at us familiarly in this new collection. Linguistically, Heaney continues to behave as though the major poetic fashions of his own lifetime never happened. At times, the brilliant and meticulous measure of his lines sound like the last word in Johnsonian impeccability. We always find him with both feet firmly on the earth, a case of gravity empowering gravity. Certainly, at the end of the 20 th century, it’s a relief to find a poet who remains so consistently sane. Some of those infamous preoccupations, synonymous with being Heaney, occupy these 79 pages. First, there are the wily analogies he uses to talk of Ireland, “the child that’s d

Seemly, humane, rational, revelatory, steady, traditional, sane, grounded

Human Chain, by Seamus Heaney.  (Faber ISBN 978-0-571-26922-8, published 2010)   Early in this book Seamus Heaney describes ‘The Conway Stewart’, a newly purchased fountain pen, “The nib uncapped, / treating it to its first deep snorkel / In a newly opened ink-bottle.” Heaney may live in the age of the email and the text message, but his interest in writing implements goes back to the start, when he compared his pen to a spade that digs deep. He is avid for pencils, paper, the traditional means of getting a poem on the record. Importantly, this poem is reprised later in the collection when he uses the voice of Colum Cille, the great saint of Iona: My hand is cramped from penwork. My quill has a tapered point. Its bird-mouth issues a blue-dark Beetle-sparkle of ink. Wisdom keeps welling in streams From my fine-drawn sallow hand: Riverrun on the vellum Of ink from green-skinned holly. My small runny pen keeps going Through books, through thick and

From Toorak through Fitzroy

Here is a poetry of hard lessons, a beating out of tough facts into sayings that are smooth as he can make them. Shelton Lea wants to fix it in the least words. This last collection before Lea’s death this year ( Nebuchadnezzar, Melbourne, Black Pepper, 2005) contains poetry of mature control. Within the personal world of his own experience and its geographic confines (“where distances cannot be described by maps”), Lea does what he does best: talks out his bravado, his passions, his temperaments, his dreams and his griefs. The moods and status of an adopted child troubled Shelton Lea: it wasn’t that i was different to them. they were different to me. that ache, that longing in me was as certain as the sky. (‘to lael’) His poetry dramatises the quandary of identity, sometimes defiantly, sometimes softly. He is someone at odds with those around him, waking each morning to “wonder at the source of self.” Perhaps it explains his praise of other heroic loners like

He is John Ashbery

He gets so worked up about what takes a long time to work out. He walks off the stage when it gets dull. He looks around for the record player. He has put in at least ten thousand hours. He sends a poem called 'The Prelude’ to a New York editor, with a covering note. He remembers the road down to the beach in autumn. He inspires people to send mail, sometimes more than once. He inspires tributes. He is an American poet. He has been under an influence that he didn’t understand. He has been under the influence. He is an attraction, which wasn’t always the case. He is an inspiration to many Australian poets. He influences the writing of other poems. He is addressed. He is in some way neither in nor out of control. He rarely stoops to et cetera. He is previously published, which is an advantage. He is in book form. He gets the okay from his publisher. He is possible. He doesn’t worry about acknowledgments. He is at this stage, though this


What is the comparative of prolific? John Kinsella, in this latest extension of his “counter-pastoral” project (The Hierarchy of Sheep, Fremantle Arts Centre Press 1-86368-315-1 85pp) manages a tricky balancing act between the extreme givens of the bush and the fashions of art gallery and English Department. A belligerent posturing is implicit in Kinsella’s term, while there is only so far a poet can be anti-Georgics or extra-Georgics or post-Georgics before the game becomes exhausted or obvious. Nevertheless,   “counter-pastoral” is an extended essay that takes the Pastoral concerns and illusoriness of ancient and 18 th century Europe and tests them against our own realities: environmental degradation, both random and systematic destruction of nature by humans, and a seeming indifference on the part of many Australians to do anything about these things. In the midst of this, at least one vital concern ties us to those earlier Augustan times: livability. At or just below

A Local Habitation

A Local Habitation: Poems and Homilies, by Peter Steele. Edited by Sean Burke. Newman College. $39.95 hb, 168 pp, 9780734041708 Once in a seminar long ago I heard Peter Steele quote one of the more disagreeable opinions of Winston Churchill, noting that Churchill was allowed to say such things ‘because he was Churchill.’ This Churchillian self-definition, or certitude, or authority, or prowess, animates much of Peter Steele’s writings: Steele says this because he is Steele. Nor does he need to be disagreeable to do so. Importantly in the context, we need to balance this with another quote he used once in lectures, this time from the mouth of Benito Mussolini: ‘I have extinguished in myself all egoisms!’ Steele assumed, correctly, that his students would grasp the ludicrous pomposity of Il Duce, someone somewhat lacking in self-awareness. A second message though was that the ego is loose in the world, not least amongst writers, and what shall be done with it?   One answer is

God is your Next-Door Neighbour

The mesmerising, magniloquent poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke continues to exert its almost religious influence over readers. Rilke makes an entire world of meaning out of a personal vision, using religious language and images. The very valuable and, in my view, main achievement of this book (In the company of Rilke : why a 20 th -century visionary poet speaks so eloquently to 21 st -century readers yearning for inwardness, beauty & spiritual connection, Stephanie Dowrick, Allen & Unwin, 2009, ISBN 978-1-74237-180-1, RRP) is its description and commendation of the reading of poetry as a satisfying and necessary practice, available to anyone. Stephanie Dowrick identifies Rilke as gifted with ‘negative capability’. I know of several interpretations of what Keats meant by ‘negative capability’, and Dowrick herself definitely fits one of them: the ability to objectify in words her own experiences. In this case, Dowrick’s experience of reading poetry. Poetry, its intimacy,

Invisible yet Enduring Lilacs

Train overshoots Platform Three at Macleod Railway Station To enter into the written world of Gerald Murnane is to see and hear methodical, tested sentences that take us into unpredictable places. Methodical but managed sentences, tested but spontaneous sentences that emulate the logic and illogic of the moving mind. Methodical and unrepetitious, for they act like lines of poetry, mood and meaning changing even when the same words are used. These essays, fugitive or eremitical take your pick, have appeared over the past twenty years. (Gerald Murnane, Invisible yet enduring lilacs, Giramondo, $24.95, 225 p, 1-920882-09-X) They further accentuate the reader’s reliance on the imagination of Gerald Murnane. “I imagined that the house itself had been shipped many years before from Britain,” he writes. Most writers assume that their imagination is solidly before us in the work, but for Murnane his images are as essential and sensible as any reality he is constructing. Images are a fir

Otherwise than I had supposed it

When some cheese-headed ladder-climber reads      A poem of mine from the rostrum, Don’t listen. That girl in her jersey and beads,      Second row from the front, has the original nostrum I blundered through nine hundred parties and ninety-eight pubs       In search of. The words are a totem Erected long after for scholars and yobs      Who’d make, if they could, a bicycle-seat of my scrotum. (‘To Any Young Man who Hears my Verses Read in a Lecture Room’) The person James Baxter has to thank for saving this gem from oblivion is a Wellington lecturer. Such a paradox would not have been lost on a poet who spent his life at war with the powers of this world and who made his own rough peace with them, when he could. Baxter wrote much scurrilous verse about universities while relying on their patronage. He bent Catholic dogma inside out while running a commune with church blessing. He attacked bourgeois mores in book after book, depending on that same bourgeoi

Auden's Rediscovery of Christianity

 W. H Auden's Typewriter A paper by Philip Harvey given at a seminar on the poet W.H. Auden, as part of a joint presentation with Dr William Johnston at the Institute for Spiritual Studies, St. Peter's Church, Eastern Hill, Melbourne, on Wednesday the 6 th of April 2011.   1.     The Master of Versification W. H. Auden (1907-1973) clearly had the view that a poet, especially a great poet and he was only interested in being a great poet, had to have command of all the poetic forms. When we open the Collected Works we find every imaginable form of poem. There is the villanelle or pantoum: Time will say nothing but I told you so, Time only knows the price we have to pay; If I could tell you I would let you know. There is the limerick: As the poets have mournfully sung, Death takes the innocent young,              The rolling in money,         The screamingly funny, And those who are very well hung. Later in life Auden turned his