Warrick Wynne’s Poetry Pages

reading, writing and the connections

Of Here and Now

Some Recent ‘Selected’ Australian Poets.

A Human Pattern (Selected Poems) Judith Wright
A&R 1990, pb., 242 pp, ISBN 0 207 16484.3, RRP – $12.95

Selected Poems – Robert Gray
A&R 1990, pb., ISBN 0 207 16647 1, RRP – $12.95

A Porter Selected – Peter Porter
O.U.P. 1989, pb., ISBN 0 19 282661 1, RRP – Pound6.95 (U.K.)

Selected Poems (1956-1988) – Thomas Shapcott
U.Q.P. 1989, pb., ISBN 0 7022 2243 7, RRP – $18.95

If there is one thing that links these re-releases and updates of the ‘Selected Poems’ of four very different Australian poets, then perhaps it is the importance they all place on other cultures and other poetries. The lack of an aggressively ‘Australian’ voice in any of these books, and indeed their very existence, are more signs (if we keep needing to be told) of the maturity and confidence of Australian writing now. These poets all have international influences and aspirations. Wright, of course, can wheel with confidence from Biblical mythology to aborigines and the environment, Gray from third century Buddhist variations to powerfully conceived images of the local meatworks. Porter has always been an international. Our claims on him as Australian at all are tenuous, some would argue, due to his long residency overseas. More English than the English. I disagree. His superbly modulated poems from somewhere in England are another of our voices. Shapcott too, in his novels as well as his travel poems, has also always been acutely aware of a world existing here and there.

The notion of a ‘selected’ itself is an interesting one. For the reader who knows these works as a larger whole, the selection of certain central poems for inclusion in each of these books re-shapes the whole corpus somehow. Poems from familiar books look different in this pared down format. For the poet the difficulty comes in the selection and deletion of poems. The retrospective exhibition. What do you include and, harder, what do you leave out? What criterion do you use? What if you don’t write like that any more? Or just as common, don’t think like that? Do you try to censor the younger self? Not that Wright seemed to agonise too long over such decisions. She’s stuck almost exactly to the selection she made in 1963 and merely added as she’s gone on. Gray has taken his prize-winning selection of four years ago and simply added the entire contents of his latest book Piano. Porter seems to have had the most condensing to do. His Collected Poems made quite an impact a in 1983 and he’s had to strip down nearly two hundred pages from that, as well as include the best from three new books since then!

It’s difficult to believe it’s over forty years since Judith Wright’s famous debut volume The Moving Image made such an impression. There’s plenty of that volume here and it still stands up. It’s hard to resist the idea that, over-anthologised as they may be, poems like ‘Bullocky’ and ‘The Surfer’ are still among the best things she’s written. And the opening of ‘South of My Days’ must surely rank as one of the best openings to an Australian poem:

South of my days’ circle, part of my blood country,
rises that tableland, high delicate outline
of bony slopes wincing under the winter;
low trees blue-leaved and olive; outcropping granite-
clean, lean hungry country.

Though Wright has moved on from this volume her concerns have remained remarkably persistent. Early interests in the aborigines, philosophy and the environment (and it was an early interest-pre-Greenies even!) persist even if her rhythms and syntax have altered somewhat. Her early work is marked by a density and a somenity, working in ambitious metaphors about the most important issues. The later, less well known work, seems more relaxed, more personal sounding. She writes, ‘I used to love Keats, Blake / now I try Haiku’ and while Wright is more likely to experiment with sequences and linked poems in her later work, there is too a new brevity and a lyrical freshness that is appealing. Perhaps there’s something like a humility too, that comes with experience: ‘There’s altogether too much I know nothing about’, she writes in her latest collection.

At times Wright has been critical of the critical appropriation of her early poems by schools and universities. She has accused these places of engendering a dislike for poetry and even tried to remove some poems from courses. A little ironic since such institutions have provided, and will probably continue to provide the bulk of Wright’s new readership into the next decade. Nevertheless, her criticism is understandable and the reissue of this edition is a reminder of how much more there is to her than those early works. As she writes: ‘You ask me to read those poems I wrote in my thirties? / They dropped off several incarnations back.’

It has been a long journey, and Wright has often seen it that way: ‘I set out on my journey’ and ‘Many roads meet here / in me, the traveller’. She is, like Yeats as an elder statesperson poet, always willing to go on exploring: ‘My search is further. / There’s still to name and know / beyond the flowers I gather’ and yet also, commanding, in a consistent viewpoint in over a dozen volumes, as major poets do, a way of seeing. These lines, written nearly forty years apart, speaking as they do of our dark side and our dubious ‘progress’ through history, could be from the same poem:

Night floods us silently as history

We are all of us born of fire, possessed by darkness

Robert Gray’s 1985 Selected Poems made an immediate impact and won major prizes. This expanded volume looks even better than that book. As with Judith Wright’s selection, A&R have decided on a slightly larger, more durable looking format with an Australian painting on the cover. These look like somebody’s taken some time with design. The early A&R editions seemed always likely to self-destruct, spitting out pages like cards, often before you left the shop. These are big improvements.

Gray’s poetry is Asian in influence, drawing on Buddhist values and ways of seeing. The ordinary is celebrated constantly, often in images of startling resonance. ‘All that’s important / is the ordinary things’ he writes. In fact, it’s as a maker of images that Gray most often shines, transforming and, like all good imagists, allowing us to see things freshly. Sometimes these ways of seeing form complete poems:

Weary, I tear open the shopping.
From newspaper waddles
on the table
like an irate duck
this melon

Staved-in, the old rowboat
we had as kids
has foundered this last time
in a field of grass.

but elsewhere Gray uses similar images in poems of more conventional length where they work just as well. There is fascinating perspective being created here, as Gray recreates the Australian landscape from a Buddhist viewpoint. It is a way of seeing that must be created, as he repeats, out of detachment: ‘Only one who knows Detachment, and lets his thoughts grow fleeting, / could love these mountains, since his mind is not hampered anywhere’ and of ‘awareness, with no / clinging to, / no working on, the mind. / It is a floating; ever-moving; “marvellous emptiness” ‘. Through this perspective Gray writes of boarding houses, quiet mornings, suburban evenings, pumpkins, shells (‘a lifting spinnaker’) country towns (‘there is always an empty block of land / on the main street’), sharks and kangaroos. These poems are personal sounding, almost anecdotal at times, the first person ‘I’ everywhere and the accumulated details creating the sense of a human speaker, as in the opening of the appropriately titled, ‘Curriculum Vitae’:

Once playing cricket, beneath a toast-dry hill,
I heard the bat crack, but watched a moment longer
a swallow, racing lightly, just above the ground. I was
impressed by the way
the bird skimmed, fast as a cricket ball.
It was decided for me, within that instant,
where my interests lay.

Thus, it seems are poets born! Gray’s poems are immensely readable, always interesting and often startling. Inevitably there are lapses. But these are more than made up for in the creation of a fresh perspective and a strong personal voice that this selection adds up to.

Peter Porter has lived in England now for many years and it can’t help but show. However, like Auden (they have a similar tone at times too) Porter seems more international than national. He voices the kind of concerns a civilized and intelligent observer has when confronted with our century. It’s almost the voice of a universal middle class in perpetual mid-life crisis! That’s not meant to make him sound like a lightweight. Porter’s inspiration and influence comes, to a large degree, from the classical achievements of Western civilization, from art and literature and the great tradition of European culture. However, Porter’s poems never lose touch with a personal life and the peculiar problems of ‘the practicalities of living’.

Like Wright, Porter must sometimes feel trapped by his earlier, no longer so characteristic, voice. I must admit I began my search through this attractive looking collection (the Australian painting on the cover becoming mandatory for books of Australian poetry – and why not? ) by looking for those early anthologised pieces such as ‘Phar Lap in the Melbourne Museum’. It’s there and it concludes as well as ever, with what was to become for Porter a characteristic aphoristic movement: Porter is never afraid to generalise:

Twenty years later on Sunday afternoons
You still can’t see him for the rubbing crowds.
He shares with Bradman and Ned Kelly some
Of the dirty jokes always going around.
It is Australian innocence to love
The naturally excessive and be proud
Of a handsome chestnut gelding who ran fast.

‘Your Attention Please’, the famous and oft-published two minute warning, is also there, but like Wright, Porter has come a long way since then. That poem is almost thirty years old now and, in the precarious era of Glasnost, you’d like to think that we could relegate it to the realm of history.

Less likely ever to be relegated anywhere, and more typical of Porter’s interests since then, are the more personal sounding poems from Living in a Calm Country and The Cost of Seriousness which are, I think, the highlights of this selection. Here are poems of loss and parting, death and its consequences, whether poetry and art can ever equip us for life and its realities. In these poems there is an intensity of tone. Porter seems driven to write; ‘Once more I come to the white page of art / to discover what I know / and what I presume I feel’, hardly able to control the words that spring from him: ‘The truth is a story forcing me to tell it. It is not / my story or my truth.’ Coming after the death of his wife, poems such as ‘The Easiest Room in Hell’, ‘An Angel in Blythburgh Church’, ‘An Exequy’ and ‘The Delegate’ are timeless pieces on death, parting and healing.

Porter continually pits the power of poetry and art against the worst the twentieth century can offer. Against meaninglessness and chaos he offers, against all reason, a faith in the rational and the human.

Thomas Shapcott’s poems look better to me in a group, and there is quite a group here. Shapcott is amazingly prolific, publishing thirty books, including novels, since 1961. As you’d expect from such an output the poems here vary in quality. What is unexpected is the sheer variety of approach from prose poems to sequences, personal lyrics to biographies in verse. Shapcott began with an interest in sonnets but has branched into a multiplicity of, usually looser, forms since then.

One thing that hasn’t altered in Shapcott’s poems is an interest in depicting people, often through the self-revealing Browningesque dramatic monologues or through a linked series of poems. Real and imagined people including Brahms, Macquarie, Captain Logan, Karoly Pulszky are created in these recurring poems. Many of these poems are concerned with the effect Australia had on the European consciousness.

The European consciousness is also explored in the poems of travel and travelling that feature prominently in this selection. Most are single caught moments; In Hyde Park ‘a group of kids break the deckchairs’, a balloon soars over Central Park, there is a heart attack on a New York bus. It is the universality of experience that Shapcott so often seems to find ‘over there’. Which may explain why Shapcott is so well received in Europe. He writes in a recent poem,’Learning the French’; ‘Having caught the tone, what else can be the matter?’ Many things, it seems, but more often than not, Shapcott does more than merely catch the tone.

For all that, I think the most convincing poems here are the poems of family life and children, growing up, ageing, the awareness of time passing; thirty years of life celebrated in an amazing variety of poems. In extracts like this, set in a museum, from the under-rated long work, Shabbytown Calendar we see Shapcott at his best:

The attendants are bored the children stop
and then laugh they move on it is nothing
how shall I tell them the curse is true?
that out in the sunlight their shoulders are fingered
that already the things they bring in as Everlastings
have the smell of Museums that once having drawn the circle
you will get the dark all over you

If these volumes, and I speak especially perhaps of Wright here, presented as they are as a kind of ‘best of’ selection, sometimes lack the excitement that readers must have felt at the appearance of their first collections; the appearance of a new talent in the poetic landscape, then that is replaced by a more considered and retrospective appreciation of the contribution these poets, and the cultures they are attached to, have made to our collection of voices.

Copyright – Warrick Wynne

This review originally appeared in The Australian Book Review.


Written by warrick

July 11, 2011 at 3:54 pm

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