La Trobe University Essay

An excuse first. This can only be a magpie’s look at a marriage – between poetry and music – that has a near-infinite history of complex living arrangements, recurrent divorces, remarriages and impromptu de facto cohabitations. I’ve chosen a few marital battles of particular interest to me, a writer for whom song is a sometime thing. I’d like to claim those battles as representative of some epochs and musical styles, at least within various Western traditions; they are certainly representative of my musical obsessions.

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Last year, in the Australian Book Review/La Trobe University Annual Lecture series, Ian Donaldson gave a sparkling talk on biography. He told us that it has emerged as something of a cultural phenomenon in recent years, with a biography section at the front of many bookshops. We now know that the genre has endless possibilities (biographers have written about London, Paris, the pineapple and the potato), and that, despite its dissenters, biography has even become acceptable within the academy. My brother, a paediatrician who works in intensive care, has been known to end telephone conversations by saying: ‘Gotta go, got lives to save.’ Ever since Ian Donaldson’s talk, with its wonderful title, ‘Matters of Life and Death: The Return of Biography’ (ABR, November 2006), I have felt able to say: ‘Gotta go, got lives to write.’

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At first, you find the claim that you resemble your parents implausible. Later, you find it unflattering. But there are moments when you glimpse someone in a mirror and only belatedly recognise yourself. These are the moments when you realise – it is in equal parts chastening and reassuring – that if you are moving through time as an image of your parents’ past, their image is waiting for you in mirrors: they are the ghosts that haunt your future, as it were.

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In the teaching of copyright, it is usually said that copyright is an economic right. In Arnhem Land, they think otherwise. In 1990, I attended a meeting of Aboriginal artists in Maningrida. These artists had been involved in a copyright infringement case concerning the unauthorised reproduction of works of art on T-shirts. The case had settled, and the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the division of the spoils. The case involved a number of artists and different infringements by the same infringer.

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Ern Malley aside, Harold Stewart and James McAuley are poetic confrères in a region of Australian letters that has been largely overlooked. McAuley (1917–76), who translated only intermittently from the German, gave us poems by Stefan Georg, Karl Haushofer, and Georg Trakl, but the poem I will concentrate on is his 1946 version of Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Herbsttag’, which is so remarkable that later I intend to examine it closely. Stewart 1916–95), in contrast to McAuley, spent a good deal of his writing life, both in Australia and Japan, in translating Japanese classical verse, particularly the masters of haiku: Bashô, Buson, Shiki, Issa, Ryokan, Baizan, and others. This work, which occupied him for many years in Australia and Japan, was gathered in two books that will be the focus of my remarks.

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Primo Levi, in two interviews given almost twenty years ago*, set a standard of critical sympathy that is not only exemplary, but peculiarly apt to the fraught debate about the post-September 11 world and the USA’s place and reputation within it.

As mouths go, it must be one of the most fabled of the century past. The lips, as widely parted as they could be, suggest the contours of a distended heart. There is an upper gallery of teeth, slightly imperfect, and glazed by spittle mingling with the crystal darts and droplets of a powerful jet of water issuing relentlessly from above the face. A mottled tongue is ...