Archive

'My mss are destroyed'

Marie-Louise Ayres
Tuesday, 01 May 2007

I can’t let you have my ‘papers’ because I don’t keep any. My mss are destroyed as soon as the books are printed. I put very little into notebooks, don’t keep my friends’ letters … and anything unfinished when I die is to be burnt. The final versions of my books are what I want people to see …

       (Patrick White, reply to Dr George Chandler, Director General, 9 April 1977, National Library of Australia, MS 8469)

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It is now thirty years since James McAuley died, and more has been written about him in that time than about any other Australian poet. Poets are not usually of great biographical importance unless they are also caught up in historical and political events, or are a kind of phenomenon like Byron or Rimbaud. McAuley was not a man of action, but he was associated with a number of events which were significant in Australian development and culture; and a large, some would say inordinate, part of his life and energy went into politics and polemics. He became something of a public figure, and, as he himself recognised, the lives of such figures quickly become public property. Any book about him is bound to be of interest.

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For almost half of the twentieth century, train passengers travelling into Sydney from the western suburbs and beyond could observe a large sign, painted in drop-shadow lettering, on the vast blank brick wall of an industrial building facing the tracks between Redfern and Central. It carried the message: TEAGUE’S HAMBURGER ROLLS – WHAT YOU EAT TODAY, WALKS AND TALKS TOMORROW.

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The United Nations’ eighth secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, has just taken over what has been called the world’s worst job. But it is one that attracts fierce, devious and polite competition. Why would anyone seek, for less than $400,000 a year, to be the chief administrative officer of a non-government that cannot govern, a non-corporation that cannot borrow or invest? The UN’s total budget is about the same as the New York City school system, and the secretary-general has to beg 192 national stakeholders for funds even to carry out what they instruct him to do. Who would want to be answerable, as well, to a fifteen-member board, five of whose members use their permanency to frustrate others and advance their own interests, rather than those of the organisation?

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Regardless of debates over Australian cultural identity, the flag and a potential republic, the ‘Green and Gold’ colours of our national sporting teams are recognised worldwide. The Golden Wattle (Acacia pycnantha), from which these colours are derived, was first proposed as a national flower in the 1880s during the prelude to Federation. However, it was not until the 1988 Bicentenary Celebrations that it was formally declared as Australia’s floral emblem. Why was the wattle chosen for this honour over its main competitor, the spectacular red waratah? And what was the significance of using wattle as a symbol of national unity and mourning in the wake of the 2002 Bali bombings?

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It is rare in Australia for a literary biographer, even one of distinction, to write at book length about her intellectual formation and biographical pursuits. A country so demonstrably forgetful of its best poetry and fiction is unlikely to foster a literature of this burgeoning genre, still emerging from its decorous constraints. Elsewhere, we have Richard Holmes’s seminal Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic biographer (1995) and Leon Edel’s Bloomsbury: A house of lions (1979), but Australian examples are few. So it is good to have Brenda Niall’s lucid account of her gradual transformation from academic to biographer.

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Dominique Hecq and Brian Edwards are well versed in the contingencies of language, roaming in their poetry between experimentation and high tradition – at least in terms of content, if not so much in form. Both target the self-reflexive play of language early in their latest collections: Hecq in her title poem, with ‘words spreading / like couchgrass after summer rains / on my tongue’; Edwards even more demonstrably in ‘Reading Althusser on Marx’, where ‘Standing between objects and meanings / the language: there are only partial truths’.

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The dust jacket describes James Fenton as ‘rightly praised for his own love poetry’. Evidently, Fenton does not demur, because he has found room for six of his own poems when other likely names are represented less generously or not at all. But more of that anon. The introduction begins by quoting Michael Longley: ‘I have believed for a long time … that love poetry is at the core of the enterprise: if poetry is a wheel, then the hub of the wheel is love poetry. Poems which articulate all the other cares and attachments … radiate from the hub like spokes on a wheel.’ Fenton continues: ‘I love you. You love me. I used to love you. You don’t love me. I want to sleep with you. Here we are in bed together. I hate you. You betrayed me. I’ve betrayed you. I want to kill you. Oh no! I have killed you. Such are the simple propositions on which these lyrics elaborate.’

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Letter to Elizabeth Jolley

Caroline Lurie
Sunday, 01 April 2007

Dear Elizabeth,

Well, it seems our long correspondence is over. Actually it ended some years ago, didn’t it? Your last letter to me is dated Christmas Eve 2001. I continued writing to you into the following year, not immediately realising you were unable to reply, even though your later letters spoke of confusion and of unaccountably getting lost in familiar streets.

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What is a ‘literary life’? The phrase is invitingly open. Some writers seem to live their lives with a studied circumspection, as if creating a work of art. Everything is crafted to present only what the writer wishes to reveal, exactly as in creating a literary work. Oscar Wilde and Jack Kerouac may seem odd bedfellows, except in this one regard. Oscar’s bon mots and flamboyantly witty social gestures mirror those of his written personae, to the extent that his life is his art and his art is his life, exactly as he almost said. Kerouac’s crucial discovery may have been that getting ‘on the road’ could lead not only to a bestseller that influenced a generation, but that it could also shape the perception of his life, where the public and private became synonymous. All the automatic writing of his letters, the photographs of his circle of friends who also people his books, the laconic interviews, even his brooding, photogenic likeness to James Dean, are an integral part of his literary self-creation, intrinsic with a philosophy of staying in a speeding car and observing life from the fast lane. For both Wilde and Kerouac, ‘style’ is the word that links the literary and the life. However different from each other, both are dramatically self-consistent in lifestyles and literary styles.

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