Warrick Wynne’s Poetry Pages

reading, writing and the connections

Flaming Archpriest of Neo-Bomboism.

Poet of the 21st Century – Collected Poems – Harry Hooton
A&R Modern Poets, 1990
(ISBN 0 207 16646 3, pb., 191 pp.$16.95)

Is Australia’s Literature big enough yet to hide lost poets? Philospher, poet, cult figure of the 1940s, Harry Hooton died nearly thirty years ago and hasn’t been in print in twenty-five but is revived here in the latest of A&R’s increasingly impressive ‘Modern Poets’ series. Hooton may not be the lost poet we have been waiting for, but the collection offers insights into an intensely personal view of the world and to a unique voice in Australian poetry.

Born in England, Hooton came to Australia aged sixteen in 1924. He spent time tramping around New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, usually poor, even spending some time in jail. Hooton was never really a popular poet. Even in his heyday he seems to have existed only in the margins of Australian poetry, a ‘bohemian guru’ with a small but devoted circle of admirers in Sydney. This is a devoted offering too, an idiosychratic collection of poetry, philosophy and poetic theory collected by Sasha Soldatow. It won’t change many opinions about Hooton’s poetry I don’t think, but these opinions may have been mellowing somewhat anyway since more formal contemporaries like McAuley were digging their ideological trenches, describing Hooton as ‘an anarchist whose writings were without talent or coherent ideas’. Indeed, the book may be most interesting as a record of an outcast at a time when the battle lines were being drawn.

Hooton refused to enter either the conservative or the modernist camps and stands out as a true individual. He is just as critical of the conventional poets, “Why do they cry these poets, for their Lost Love; / For the Moon, for Death; for the Talents that / They have misused…” as he is of Eliot and Joyce and the other modernists: “lewd frail fraud freud twisting linguistic licewords”. His poetry is public in its tone and utterance, didactic, at times almost insufferably dogmatic, self-consciously resisting categories and labels. When he published a magazine called simply “No. 1” he explained:

The booklet is untitled because titles provide an easy ready-made means of classification, and once classified we would be constituted as a school . . . We do not want to read of ‘A.D. Hope, the most outstanding Jinglejuggler’ or of ‘Garry Lyle, the leader of the Pointless School’ or of ‘that flaming archpriest of Neo-Bomboism, Harry Hooton’.

This early association with Hope seems to have worn off quickly. Hope was later critical of Hooton, describing his book, “Power over Things”, as “Anarchism with a Science Fiction face-lift”.

Hooton’s first book, “These Poets” (1941), seems to have made the strongest impression serving to establish many of the traits of his poetry. It is exclamatory, energetic, clumsily exuberant, almost manic in its enthusiastic rejection of the past. But there are also, in this first book, moments of naivety and innocence, proclamations that seem unlike anything else in the Australian poetry of the forties and little since:

“I am Life, and so your purpose-
I want futile life, I want everything.
And I’ve got it. I am everything…
I am the ocean, its unceasing roar,
And the yelling life-cell infinitesimal,
‘Butterfly-stamping’ on the tattered shore,
Clinging to my strip of yellow sand, and laughing in your face,
Oh foolish, carefree and responsive sea –
Laughing and crying with you.”

There is discussion of poetry in this first section of the “Collected Poems” but there is too, a growing philosophical undercurrent. Like Whitman, one of the few poets Hooton actually seems to have admired, Hooton’s poetry becomes, at times, more a philosophical diatribe. However, the comparison is unfair. Hooton’s work lacks the imaginative and celebratory qualities of Whitman’s work.

After the first collection, Hooton’s work here becomes more self-consciously theory and philosophy, the rhythms suffereing at the expense of ideas at any cost:

The lowest man on earth is a hero and a god with me:
Whoever he is, he is greater than any or all of his fellows;
Means more to me than all the crowned or bald heads of europe;
Cleaner than any dust from greece
Warmer than the bones in westminster abbey

Even the poems’ openings in his later work indicate the direction Hooton’s poetry has taken, ‘This is the poem of machines, and do you know what that means?’, ‘Leave yourself alone – you are not the enemy!’ or ‘There are three stages of history:’. Soldatow sums up Hooton’s philosophy as “Leave man alone, man is perfect. Concentrate instead on matter’. This philosophy is not only seen here in the poems but in essays like ‘Anarcho-Technocracy’, a somewhat idealistic argument for an Anarchist urban Utopia, ‘Jazz and Mechanisation’ and, probably the most interesting, ‘Problems are Flowers and Fade’.

Despite claims for Hooton as part of the ‘formative centre’ of the American inspired Australian poetry of the 1970s, Hooton’s work seems too often gesture without substance and has failed to have the influence predicted of it. What is stranger about this collection is that little sense of Hooton, the man, comes through in these poems. Reputedly a man of humour and charm, a great talker and letter writer, very little of this aspect of the poet is allowed to emerge here. Perhaps some inclusion of Hooton’s letters or conversations would have given a more human dimension to the essays and poems.

One of the ironies of theis collection is that Hooton himself may have been somewhat ambivalent about a retrospective such as this. One of his most frequent cries was for the rejection of the past, “Words that have fallen from the lips are dead”. It is odd then that after thirty years we are about to hear those words again, and that Hooton’s isolation, imposed it seems, as much by himself as by the indifference of others, may be about to end.

Copyright – Warrick Wynne

This review originally appeared in The Australian Book Review.

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Written by warrick

July 11, 2011 at 3:48 pm

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