Cultural Cohesion, p.19Clive James
The cruel girls we loved
Are over forty,
Their subtle daughters
Have stolen their beauty;
And with a blue stare
Of cruel surprise
They mock their anxious mothers
With their mother’s eyes.
For the sons of the squatters, at home anywhere in the world where there were country houses, turning up breezily at Buckingham Palace to collect their gongs, Australian cultural isolation was a non-problem. To James McAuley, Fivefather number four, it was a burning issue, and he eventually reached the conclusion that there was no salvation outside the church. For McAuley in the late—some might say the sclerotic—phase of his conservatism, the Catholic Church was not just the symbol but the living presence of the international order he thought his country needed to be part of, or it would have no standards except its own. There was a paradox in his position, because the Church stood behind and above the heritage of Irish immigration that gave the Labor Party its electoral strength and provincialism its abiding force. Luckily he thrived on paradoxes. They appealed to his sense of symmetry. He had a formal gift that comes singing out of this anthology with the chamfered and inlaid neatness of a Van Eyck angel’s spinet. In stanzas lusciously sonorous he evoked austerity as if thirsting for a vinegar-soaked sponge.
Where once was a sea is now a salty sunken desert,
A futile heart within a fair periphery;
The people are hard-eyed, kindly, with nothing inside them,
The men are independent but you could not call them free.
Since free was exactly what the independent men did call themselves, McAuley could not expect to be popular for taking this position, but he didn’t care. A local Ortega relishing his role as a fastidious rebel against the mass-market future, he was fated to embrace austerity all too successfully—the later epic poetry was thought tedious even by lifelong admirers—but he never lost his unmatched capacity to conduct a prose argument through a poetic form: “Because,” a lament for his parents and the love he never got from them or could give back, is one of the great modern Australian poems and would be worth acquiring this book for just on its own.
The same might be said for several of the poems in the selection from the last of the Fivefathers, Francis Webb, whose fitting task is not to fit into this book or any other except those entirely his. Even at the time, Webb was a one-off, an El Greco–style stylistic maverick: making an entirely unexpected appearance in a tradition, he could be seen to have emerged from it, but he distorted the whole thing. Webb was a clinical case, a schizophrenic who spent a lot of time in hospital and eventually disintegrated, but Murray, with typical penetration, has never fallen for the easy notion that Webb’s poetry is psycho in itself. The answer to the biologist’s trick question of whether there was something wrong with El Greco’s eyes is no, because if there had been he would have compensated for it. Similarly Webb’s poetry is the way it is because of his inner vision, not because of scrambled perceptions. If his cognitive apparatus had been muddled he would have attempted simplicities. As things were and are, his synaesthetic effects have to be compared with Baudelaire, Rimbaud and the hallucinatory extravaganzas that the British Apocalyptic poets of the 1940s aimed for without achieving. The guarantee of Webb’s urge to transcendental integration was the purity of his fragments. Wherever two or three of his admirers are gathered together, you will hear these particles flying. (My own favourite hemistitch, from a poem omitted here, is “Sunset hails a rising”: one day I’m going to call a book that and lay the beautiful ghost of an idea that must have come to him in one of his fevers, like a cooling drop of sweat.) In the enforced retreats of his hospitals and the injected lucidities of his drugs, there might well have been something prophetic about Webb. Certainly he guessed that the Australian poets would become a success story, and feared the consequences.
Now yours is the grand power, great for good or evil:
The schoolboy (poor devil!) will be told off to study you . . .
Webb was Murray’s predecessor in guessing that an efflorescent culture would set the challenge of studying it without ceasing to love it. With music and painting, both of which flourish in Australia as if the molecules of the air had been redesigned specifically to nourish them, it is easy to keep passion pure: when the orchestra strikes up, the commentary must cease, and in the art gallery you can always neglect to hire the earphones. But when the academic age dawned it became chasteningly clear that poetry would be hard to separate from its parasitic buzz. One of the penalties for success was a proliferation of middle-men, and eventually, as feminism institutionalized itself, middle-women. The new Oxford Book of Australian Women’s Verse, however, is a welcome sign that the essentials are being remembered. Unlike the notorious Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets of 1987, Susan Lever’s anthology is unburdened by didactic jargon and makes commendably little fuss about the necessarily agonizing problem of getting everybody in without leaving too many good poems out. Fledgling feminists will receive an encouraging message about self-realization growing with time. Those of us who have always taken the importance of women poets in Australia for granted (in the 1950s we were male chauvinist pigs almost to a man, but none of us was going to argue with Gwen Harwood or Judith Wright) will be left free to detect a more edifying progression. Presumably it must apply to the men as well, although perhaps the women—careful now—were always more likely to register its effects: anyway, in this verse chronicle, as the century wears on, the poets become more, instead of less, precise about domestic detail, until nowadays, against all expectation, the housewife tradition looks unbreakably strong.
One of the great strengths of the generation that included Judith Wright and Gwen Harwood lay in the harsh fact that they had no time to be careerists: they wrote from necessity, in the exiguous spare time left over from looking after their men. You would think that the new freedoms would have led to a plunge back into time, a local re-run of the rentier aesthetic leisure once enjoyed by the bluestockings of Britain and America, an inexorable push towards the free bohemian status of Edna St. Vincent Millay: that the ethereal would beckon. But not on this showing. It was once uniquely Gwen Harwood’s way to write about music and philosophy as if they were the bread of life she had brought home from the shops. But here is the proof that it has since become standard practice, thus helping to create, for the Australian reader, perhaps the least alienated and divisive literary culture on earth. Try this, from Susan Hampton’s “Ode to a Car Radio.”
My right eye leaking blood coming home
from Casualty, patched, pirate view, & changing gears
past Rooms to Let $12 p.w. beside Surry Hills Smash Repairs
& a beer gut emerging from a pub door at ten, well,
you can picture the general scene
& click! clear as glass, the flute opening
to Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, cool & sweet
as a parkful of wet trees.
Ms. Hampton was one of the hectoring editors of the aforementioned Penguin anthology but I forgive her, as long as she goes on writing like that. Prokofiev gets into the poem unquestioned, which is exactly the way things ought to be, because Australia is a place where classical music is in the air. It didn’t happen by accident. Australia became a clever country because clever people, many of them refugees from harsh political experience in Europe, were wise enough not to accept unquestioned the prevalent intellectual assumptions about the necessary divorce between democracy and art. For the poets of the pre-Academic generation, art was in their lives as sustenance and salvation. Their successors have caught the habit, in the only tradition worth taking the trouble to define, the handing on of a copious view. One of my favourite poems in this book is by Vicki Raymond, whose work I will seek out from now on. Talking about static electricity in the office, she brings off a quietly tremendous coup worthy of the poet whose name she invokes.
You can even feel it through your clot
which crackle lightly like tinfoil.
It’s as though you were turning into
something not right, but strange; your hair
floats out like Coleridge’s
after he’d swallowed honeydew.
According to the notes, Vicki Raymond is an expatriate who has lived in London since 1981. Well, it’s an Australian poem wherever it was written. The expatriates are part of all this too, but if put to the question they would have to admit that the vitality grown at home in their absence has come to form the core of the total astonishment, generating the power behind what makes a small country recognizable to the world in the only way that matters—its voice, the sound of freedom.
Times Literary Supplement, July 5, 1996;
later included in Even As We Speak, 2001
THE GREAT GENERATION OF
First A. D. Hope and then Judith Wright, two of the most famous twentieth-century Australian poets died in the millennium year, and with them the first great phalanx of modern Australian poetry ran out of living representatives. When my generation was nursing its callow dreams of getting established, most of the future patriarchs and matriarchs were still only in their forties but they dominated the skyline: they looked more established than the Sydney Harbour Bridge, than the Melbourne Club, than the Great Dividing Range. Each commanding not just a name but a physical presence, they had first call on the available limelight. Hope, Wright, James McAuley, Douglas Stewart and Gwen Harwood were only the most prominent. David Campbell seemed keen to prove that his wartime productivity had been just the start. Francis Webb, though terminally schizophrenic in a mental hospital, kindly continued to receive visits from young hopefuls who rightly suspected that he might be more original than they were.
Kenneth Slessor, the precursor, was far gone in his latter-day cocktail-fuelled dandyism but lived long enough to meet Les Murray personally and anoint him as a future torch-bearer. Similarly, Christopher Brennan in his cups had once smiled on the young A. D. Hope. The smile was probably a bit lopsided, but Hope, though he himself grew older with more grace, remembered the moment fondly. According to his own account, written in extreme old age but with typical clarity of detail, he had tracked Brennan down to a pub toilet, where the permanently plastered polymath was pointing Percy at the porcelain—or perhaps, considering Brennan’s stature as a classical scholar, he was pointing Propertius at the porphyry. Hope attracted the swaying Brennan’s attention by pencilling the first half of a rude Latin inscription from Pompeii at eye level above the urinal. Brennan took the pencil, completed the inscription, noted that it was in Saturnian metre, and delivered a comprehensive lecture on accentual metres right through the period of classical verse. And then he buttoned his fly.
Growing old was something these legends seemed slow to do, especially if you were waiting for them to give you breathing space. R. D. Fitzgerald—born, like Slessor, at the turn of the century and for some time considered his equal—had suffered a weakening of the reputation but still bulked large: there was a mild uproar when McAuley gave Fitzgerald’s Forty Years’ Poems a bad review. McAuley died sooner than he should have—cancer took him in 1976—but when I was a student he was still to be seen in his acerbic prime, fulminating away on the far right. I can remember a tight-lipped, buttoned-up lecture he gave in Sydney University’s Wallace Theatre. His nominal subject was left-wing incomprehension of the recently published Dr. Zhivago, but the real object of his ire seemed to be liberalism in general, starting with the invention of moveable type, or perhaps the wheel. By that stage Australia’s most adamantine ultra-Catholic made the Vatican look soft on communism, but anybody who thought McAuley was through as a poet would have been making a mistake: “Because,” one of his very best things, was a product of his last phase. Those of us who had panned his epic (Captain Quiros was essentially a lament for Australia’s having missed out on being part of a Catholic empire) were obliged to admit that he went down in a blaze of lyrics.
The year of McAuley’s death was the first year I could afford a trip back to Sydney, where I heard quite ordinary people quoting bits of “Because.” (“Judgment is simply trying to reject/ A part of what we are because it hurts.” He could put a hook right through your head.) Hearing him quoted reminded me of what literary life had been like before I left. In theory there was no literary life, but in practice a supposedly philistine society was already saturated with poetry through many layers.
When I was growing up, the “Argonauts” programme on ABC radio featured a delightfully pedantic character called Anthony Inkwell, played by none other than A. D. Hope. The school reader called The Wide Brown Land read like a thriller. (Douglas Stewart edited one of its revisions.) Some of the home-grown comic strips had dialogue better than a play: Wally and the Major, Ginger Meggs, Bluey and Curly. (“When Bluey drinks, everybody drinks!” shouts Bluey. Everyone in the pub orders a beer and downs it in one. “When Bluey pays, everybody pays!” shouts Bluey, and goes down in a screaming heap.) Thus a generation was painlessly initiated into a concern with language. The nineteenth-century Australian tradition that Les Murray was later to call “newspaper poetry” had never died—one trusts it never will—and it was quite common for newly published poems to be talked about as current events.
When Gwen Harwood bailed out of the Bulletin, she gave its editor a poem he was proud of having published until someone pointed out that its capitalized letters at the beginning of each line formed the valedictory acrostic SO LONG BULLETIN FUCK ALL EDITORS. I was serving out my year on the Sydney Morning Herald at the time and I can remember the kerfuffle on the editorial floor when a copy of that issue of the Bulletin was brought in and crooned over by rugby scrums of delighted journos. Everyone who could push a pen laughed about it in the pubs: all were agreed that it was the wittiest outrage since the Ern Malley hoax—which, only fifteen short years before, with Hope whispering encouragement from the wings, had been cooked up by the young McAuley, along with the only slightly older Harold Stewart. Not to be confused with his namesake Douglas Stewart, Harold Stewart was one of those born fringe dwellers who depend for their income by finding money in the street. A homosexual racked by a doomed love for McAuley, decades later he ended up in Japan collecting haikus. Douglas Stewart, on the other hand, was cut out from the start for a career as a listed building. Self-exiled from New Zealand, Stewart took over the Bulletin’s Red Page and diligently built himself an unassailable place as mentor for the emergent poetry. (Kiwis in Australia are like Canucks in the U.S.: they try harder.) In my time Douglas Stewart was not only still around, he was at the height of his influence, magisterially fulfilling his role as editor of the Angus and Robertson pocket collections of canonical Australian poets. Many of them were his personal friends, but there was no point objecting, because canonical was what they were. They were a pleiade, those fiery people, and all the more so for being so individualistic. There had been no literary establishment to further their initial achievements. So they had built one. You could be impressed or not—I was only one of the young writers who petulantly tried to ignore the whole thing—but the only way to escape its looming presence was to get on a ship.
Part of the edifice they built was the critical assessment of Australia’s poetic heritage. Now that they have become part of that heritage themselves, the new critical task is to assess them. They have made it easy for us: every name from that period wrote at least a handful of poems powerful enough to travel through time and space without benefit of academic apparatus. For them it was not quite so simple: the indigenous past could be claimed as a foundation, but to the surveyor’s sceptical glance it was a shaky one, and the urge to firm it up with an injection of scholarship was hard to resist. In truth, their own poetry was written in the context of the modern international achievement, where Yeats and Eliot, rather than Brennan and Shaw Neilson, were the pervasive immediate ancestors. But in politics, nationalism called, with
Sydney University, in particular, was a nerve centre. A. D. Hope, a crucial decade older than the others, had been there in the late 1920s and had covered himself with academic honours. At Oxford he went haywire and came away with a gentleman’s Third. To hindsight, it looks as if fate wanted him to be back in Sydney and firmly placed at the Teachers’ College so that he could offer the benefit of his poetic experience when McAuley showed up there as a trainee in the late 1930s. In fact it worked the other way: McAuley scrutinized Hope’s manuscripts and not vice versa. Hope was, and would always be, a modest man. McAuley was quite the other thing. His multiple personality—intellectual by day, ragtime musician by night, seducer anytime—ideally fitted him for the university’s perennial connection with a downtown bohemia. It didn’t matter if you were officially enrolled or not, because the nightlife was a seminar with piano accompaniment. The atmosphere is well evoked in Cassandra Pybus’s The Devil and James McAuley (1999), whose early chapters amount to the best thing yet published about the poetic ferment that started in the early 1940s: she is not very profound about the poetry, but she is terrific on the ferment. It should be remembered that Sydney University was still comparatively small time in those days. The age of expansion had not yet begun, and indeed when the war was over it still hadn’t. Only after the Menzies government introduced the Commonwealth Scholarship scheme did the universities become the catalytic towers for Australia’s final refinement into the meritocratic society we know today. By the late 1950s, Sydney University was a bustling initial assembly point for the new artistic and media elites, which, having come up out of nowhere, nowadays inevitably tend to reminisce about their alma mater as if it were the somewhere that really counted. Peter Porter, a boy from Brisbane, has several times been heard to say that Sydney University gives its graduates a self-confidence denied to those who never went there.
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